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 from Close Encounters, but nevertheless Steven Spielberg succumbs to some of the narrative formulas and tonal indulgences he astutely avoided in his adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel (ones that, fair enough, you might expect from him).
For as unlikely as Spielberg seemed for The Color Purple, he appeared perfectly suited for this, a World War II coming of age story based on J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel. Yet Empire Of The Sun, while impeccably crafted and, on the whole, emotionally rewarding, is also more 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 they ambushed Pearl Harbor on December 7th of that year, the Japanese completed their sweep of Shanghai, China (still in its pre-Communist Republic days) by clearing out the last existing boroughs of Western citizens, and shipped those residents 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), becomes separated from his parents during the annex, but eludes capture. The film follows his journey throughout the war, which takes Jim from surviving on his own to finding help from a pair of sketchy Americans, to finally being interned at a work camp himself. All the while he seeks his parents even as, with age, memories of them become cloudy, and some slip away.
What Empire Of The Sun gives us, basically, is a coming of age story but without the typical beats: no school dance, no first kiss or heartbreak, or any of those staples. In the context war, for example, a first crush and a maternal figure come wrapped up in one 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). Jim is essentially Oliver Twist to Basie’s Fagin and Frank’s Artful Dodger, but those dynamics – while integral – are peripheral catalysts to a broader trajectory for Jim that sees characters come and go and return again in Jim’s life.
Empire Of The Sun isn’t a movie of ideas, it’s one of experiences; small, formative events that emerge within a much bigger and broader one. It’s not so much a tale of growing out of childhood as it is having it completely stolen, and what that looks like for an adolescent who’s not equipped for such a dramatic shift. Jim 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 passion for fighter planes, and it’s a motif that Spielberg cleverly uses to track Jim’s maturation. It begins with toy planes, then fantasies of mile high dogfights, 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 mirrors his age and arc, and reflects how he sees and copes with the world – especially his captors – along the way.
For as unique and specific as all of this is, Spielberg’s take on it ends up feeling more calculated than personal. Not that it’s clinical or distant, far from it, but Empire Of The Sun is the result of a director in transition. He’s beginning to work out ideas and ambitions he’d later perfect (and elevate) in Schindler’s List, or zero in on and darken in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
The cinematic spectacle is still all here (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 — is one of my favorite Spielberg shots ever), but the story beats feel too considered, at times too contrived and, at 2 ½ hours, too many. Symbols and visual metaphors in particular (I’m looking at you, suitcase of childhood keepsakes) are too on-the-nose and borderline heavy-handed.
Even so, I still can’t deny the chills I get as Jim cheers on American fighter planes flying overhead, leaping with boundless joy and yelling triumphant, “P-51, Cadillac of the sky! P-51, Cadillac of the sky!” (Set to John Williams’ sweeping music, the moment 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, teeming with the promise of masterpieces to come.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.
- 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. They would go head-to-head at the Oscars over a decade later 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.
- Spielberg had an epic “Oner” all planned out that ultimately fell apart. It was a very complicated, long, continuous shot that would track American bombers in action while Jim cheered them on from a rooftop, all in a single take. But the young Bale became too nervous with the onslaught of explosions over that duration, 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. Both their careers began on Spielberg’s debut short Amblin’, and they reunited in the 80s with E.T., The Color Purple, and this.
- This was the second film in a row that Spielberg directed for Warner Bros. To this day, it’s also been the last.
- In an early scene, Spielberg staged Jim being tucked into bed by his parents to replicate Norman Rockwell’s 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.