Empire Of The Sun (1987)
(for intense thematic material, sexual material, brief nude images, and some disturbing content)
Released: December 25, 1987
Runtime: 153 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano, Masatô Ibu, Ben Stiller
Surprisingly, Empire Of The Sun feels like a small but noticeable regression from the brilliant career leap that was The Color Purple.
It’s not as degenerative as 1941 was from Close Encounters, mind you. Nevertheless, Steven Spielberg succumbs to some of the narrative formulas and tonal indulgences that he astutely avoided in his adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the kind of excesses that (fair enough) you might expect from him.
For as unlikely a director as Spielberg seemed for The Color Purple, he appeared perfectly suited for this: a World War II story with a young protagonist, based on J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel. Yes, it’s impeccably crafted and, on the whole, emotionally rewarding, but Empire Of The Sun is also surprisingly conventional.
Not that the premise is. Most Hollywood WWII movies focus on the campaign in Europe against the Nazis. Empire Of The Sun, as the title implicitly declares, is set in the Far East where Imperial Japan was very busy in December of 1941.
Just one day after Japanese military fleets ambushed Pearl Harbor on December 7th of that year, the Imperial Army completed their sweep of Shanghai, China (still in its pre-Communist Republic days). Forces cleared out the last existing boroughs of Western citizens, shipping them off to internment camps.
Jamie “Jim” Graham, the 13-year-old fictionalized version of J.G. Ballard (played by Christian Bale in his first major role), eludes capture during the annex but becomes separated from his parents in the process. The film follows Jim throughout the war, on a journey that takes the him from surviving on his own to finding help from a pair of sketchy Americans, all before finally being interned at a work camp himself. All the while he seeks his parents…but with age, memories of them become cloudy, and some slip away.
Basically, Empire Of The Sun gives us a coming-of-age story but without the typical beats: no school dance, no first kiss, no heartbreak, nor any of those familiar staples. In the context war, for example, a first crush and a maternal figure come packaged in a single object of affection (Miranda Richardson, in this case).
More accurately, this is an orphan story. It pairs Jim with American expatriate hustler Basie (John Malkovich, perfectly cast) and his partner Frank (Joe Pantoliano). Each character fits a Dickensian archetype: Jim is Oliver Twist to Basie’s Fagin and Frank is the Artful Dodger, but those dynamics – while integral – are peripheral catalysts to a broader trajectory for Jim, one that sees characters come, go, and return again.
Empire Of The Sun isn’t a movie of ideas; it’s one of experiences.
Small, formative events emerge for Jim against a war-torn backdrop, and instead of growing out of childhood, these epochal events viciously steal childhood from him. As a young adolescent, Jim isn’t equipped to make such a dramatic shift, and yet he discovers wells of courage and resilience (some by choice and resolve, others by ignorance or instinct) in the midst of confusion, violence, scarcity, and grief.
A through-line for this journey is Jim’s love of fighter planes, a passion that Spielberg cleverly uses as a motif to track Jim’s maturation. It begins with toy planes, then fantasies of mile-high dogfights; it then progresses to the awe of beholding fighter planes firsthand, to even saluting Japanese pilots out of sheer admiration and respect.
Each new stage of Jim’s fascination with planes also mirrors his age and arc. Along the way, it helps to reflect how he sees the world and how he copes with it (especially with his captors).
For as unique and specific as all of this is, Spielberg’s take on it ends up feeling more calculated than personal. It’s not that the film feels clinical or distant, far from it, but Empire Of The Sun is the result of a director in transition, someone who’s treading new territory while also falling back on comfortable safety nets. He’s beginning to work out ideas and ambitions he’d later perfect (and elevate) in Schindler’s List, then cynically zero in on with A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. But here, he’s hesitant to push his risks too far.
Nevertheless, the cinematic spectacle is as big and bold as you’d imagine. A memorable highlight: an image of Jim standing in awe of a fighter plane, as sparks fall from the sky (seen at the top of this review).
It’s is one of my favorite Spielberg shots ever (in a film shot beautifully by Allen Daviau), but the story beats are too considered, at times too contrived and, at two-and-a-half hours, a few beats too many. Symbols and visual metaphors are too on-the-nose (I’m looking at you, suitcase of childhood keepsakes) and some are simply too heavy-handed.
Even so, I still can’t deny the chills I get as Jim cheers American fighter planes when they fly to the rescue overhead. Bale exudes a boundless joy he yells triumphantly, “P-51, Cadillac of the sky! P-51, Cadillac of the sky!” And set to John Williams’ sweeping music, the moment absolutely soars.
Yes, some elements feel false (and forced), but most – like that one – still deliver in classic Spielberg fashion. Empire Of The Sun is Spielberg-in-progress, but at its best it teems with the promise of masterpieces to come.
- David Lean originally intended to direct, and Spielberg was his producer. When Lean had to drop out, Spielberg stepped in.
- Ben Stiller had an early career cameo role as a prisoner in Jim’s internment camp.
- Spielberg’s screenwriter for Empire Of The Sun was renowned playwright Tom Stoppard. Ten years later, they would go head-to-head at the Oscars when Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan would face off against Shakespeare In Love, which Stoppard scripted. Famously, SIL ended up topping Spielberg’s SPR for Best Picture.
- Regarding Spielberg’s ambitious Oners, he had an epic entry all planned out for this movie…but it ultimately fell apart. It was very complicated, a lengthy, continuous shot that would track American bombers in action as Jim cheered them on from a rooftop. The shot would continue, round-and-round, in a single take. But the young Bale became too nervous about the onslaught of explosions that such a take would require, so Spielberg ended up piecing the sequence together through a more traditional (but still beautiful) series of takes.
- This would be Spielberg’s fourth and final film with cinematographer Allen Daviau. Their first collaboration was on Spielberg’s debut short film Amblin’; they reunited over a decade later in the 1980s with E.T., The Color Purple, and this.
- Empire of the Sun was the second film in a row that Spielberg directed for Warner Bros. He wouldn’t make a film for them again until A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which was co-financed by Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios.
- In an early bedtime scene at home, Spielberg replicated the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom From Fear”, right down to the newspaper in dad’s hand. Jim also had a copy of Rockwell’s painting in his suitcase of keepsakes. A big fan of the iconic painter’s work, Spielberg is a big Rockwell collector.