Empire of the Sun (1987)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano.
Plot: A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation during World War II.
Genre: Biography / Drama / War
Awards: Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound.
Rating: PG for some thematic material.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: MILD)
With Steven Spielberg at the helm of this war drama, there is the promise of spectacular moments matched by heart-tugging sentimentality that the director is known for. Empire of the Sun is for most parts lacking in sentimentality, which is always a good thing for such a genre, though it falls into theatrics to help to pull the film out of sticky situations caused by the unevenness of pacing.
Made after, in my opinion, the lackluster The Color Purple (1985), Empire of the Sun is a direct improvement, but it remains to be a film that sporadically impresses, generally entertains, but ultimately fails to fully realize its potential.
Spielberg’s film does realize its cinematic potential though, at least in the visual sense, with brilliant cinematography by Allen Daviau (E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, 1982; Bugsy, 1991) and striking production design by Norman Reynolds (Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981).
The first hour of the film, where it sees Jim (Christian Bale) and his wealthy parents living in Shanghai, and later losing them in a bid to avoid the occupying Japanese forces, is Spielberg at his best as he recreates the societal chaos that accompanies an impending war.
Like Basie (played by John Malkovich) says in the film: “It's at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it's like a country club.” And indeed it feels like one, if you ask Jim. Bale gives a superb performance in his acting debut, and shows signs of the kind of intense acting quality that he is now admired for.
His character goes through a rough time, though some might feel that Spielberg has toned down on the harshness of his environment. In my view, I feel Spielberg’s compromise in this aspect causes the film to be less powerful that it should be. Although Jim suffers a fair bit, he doesn’t quite lose his childhood innocence, despite it being a key theme of J.G. Ballard’s novel, of which this film is based on.
John Williams’ music is as always splendid. Here he adds some variety to his usual orchestral fare by employing traditional Japanese percussion styles that evoke the soundscapes of Kurosawa films like The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Seven Samurai (1954).
This is especially evident in perhaps the most suspenseful sequence of the entire film – Jim attempts to set up a trap by prowling in a swamp, but gets himself trapped as an armed Japanese soldier tries to sniff him out.
Jim loves his toy planes a lot. And despite knowing that the Japanese are enemies, he admires their Zero fighters, and the courage and stoic patriotism of their soldiers. But he rejoices “Cadillac of the Skies!” when the American P-51 Mustangs swoop down and bomb the Japanese airfield adjacent to his camp.
There are spectacular moments, but Empire of the Sun is not consistently compelling. The film has a lengthy runtime, and suffers from a meandering last half-hour that may test the patience of even the most ardent of Spielberg fans.
David Lean was originally set to direct this picture, but the great British director realized that it read like a diary, and was too biographical. Spielberg, who’s a firm admirer of Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), takes the material and fashions it into something decent. But then again, one would have expected something more profound from Spielberg.
Verdict: Has its moments of awe-inspiring grandeur, but the film is unable to sustain in its final act despite Spielberg's assured direction.
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