Monday, December 17, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: Empire of the Sun Movie Review

There are three images that stand out in Steven Spielberg’s WWII drama Empire of the Sun that help define the film as a coming of age and loss of innocence tale. The first is of a boy becoming separated from his parents in a throng of Chinese citizens fleeing Shanghai as the Japanese invasion begins. The second is the same boy being slapped in the face by a Chinese household servant whom he has probably spent his short life bossing around. The third and most powerful is when the boy witnesses the flash of light from the Nagasaki bomb, a moment that heralds both the boy’s passage into a new world and more grown up life and the loss of innocence of humanity, which had definitively demonstrated the ability to destroy itself.

The boy is Jamie Graham, known throughout most of the film as Jim, a British boy born and raised in the Shanghai International Settlement whose life is thrown into upheaval after the Pearl Harbor bombing and the start of the Pacific War. As a coming of age and child in peril story it is right up Steven Spielberg’s alley when compare with so much of his directorial oeuvre (and a great deal of his work as a producer, for that matter). This film followed The Color Purple, which was his first real foray into heavy dramatic lifting. Where that film was laden with heavy-handed directing, Empire of the Sun is fleet and brisk. It tackles serious material – a boy loses his parents at the start of war, lives on his own scrounging off the leftover canned goods in his wealthy neighborhood, spends four years in a Japanese internment camp, then goes on a death march after Allied forces begin their bombing campaign – but fixing the point of view with Jim as he ages from about nine to thirteen allows for a film that begins with the rose-tinted perspective of a child and ends with the more world-weary sense of a young teen.

Christian Bale made his feature film debut as Jim and it’s the kind of mature child performance that carries a dramatic film. The story is based on J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, adapted by Tom Stoppard, so Jim figures in just about every scene. The intensity and depth of character that Bale exhibits as a grown man playing Batman or a serial killer in American Psycho was evident 25 years ago. He convincingly ages from a child to a near young adult over the course of the film. In the prison camp, Jim is a resourceful aid to an American inmate named Basie (John Malkovich), able to conjure all kinds of tools and contraband. Malkovich was still a young and not all that well-known screen actor at the time. His style had been honed in the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, which brings an eccentric naturalism to a movie that often hovers on the line of theatricality.

Spielberg’s films are, if nothing else, tremendous entertainments and, being such, usually exhibit a certain artifice. The special effects call attention to themselves as spectacle in a Spielberg film. In this particular film, the effects involve battles in the background and fighter planes soaring overhead in dogfights. He’s a master director of such big moments with the exception of big crowd scenes which never get past the theatricality of their staginess. As the people of Shanghai evacuate, I always had the sense of extras being directed to act a certain way. And his skills as a director of small human moments tend toward the overblown. In a drama that centers on the emotional development of a child, he spends remarkably little time getting into Jim’s head. The most revealing moment in Jim’s passage from childhood innocence to a teenager who’s witnessed far more than any child should ever have to is handled with sledgehammer subtlety. As he straddles the recently deceased body of a Japanese boy who has been his ‘friend’ through the prison fence for many years, he tries to plead with him and beat him back to life. During this bedlam, Spiel berg cuts in a shot of the young Jim in his schoolboy uniform lying there dead in the water. The message is excruciatingly obvious: Jim wants his youth and innocence back. One of my biggest criticisms of Spielberg’s work has always been his lack of faith in his audience to discern meaning from images and competent storytelling to the point that he has to basically plaster it in neon writing just in case you didn’t get it.

Of course the whole film is visually splendid in a way audiences had come to expect from Spielberg by that time, but John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, which had opened in U.S. theaters only two months earlier, covers very similar terrain in a much more refined and adult manner. Given the choice of semi-autobiographical WWII stories involving childhood loss of innocence, I would be happy with either film, but would go with Boorman’s approach more often.

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