REVIEW: Empire of the Sun [1987]

“Like God taking a photograph”

Empire of the Sun is definitely a Steven Spielberg film. It has the epic scenery and action, the sentimental underlying tale of survival, and tragedy made the best of. Sure, like all Spielberg films, this one has the eventual happy ending, however, it really can be taken many ways. Most of his recent films have gone too far into the area of sap and/or ending happier than one would expect the context of the film to have gone to—see AI, Minority Report, and Catch Me If You Can. Thankfully, like he went back to with Munich last year, Empire of the Sun has a conclusion that fits it perfectly, a mix of melancholy and hope for the future that never forgets the arduous path taken to finally get back home.

Looking at the star Hollywood players today, you see Christian Bale as a chameleon that is the best leading man character actor out there. With the kind of history the film industry has, in that child stars never end up doing anything career-wise later on, it is amazing to see how good Bale was even as a kid. There is such a control over his facial expressions and emotions that you can’t believe he is only 13 years old here. The internal workings and intelligence is there, as well as that infectious smile which lights up his face, the guy has not changed one bit. A couple times I actually thought he might go Patrick Bateman on someone or retort back, “don’t you know I’m Batman?” Bale carries this film completely as Jim, not only because it is his story of becoming a man during a time of war, where his aristocratic upbringing literally saves his life a few times, but because he outperforms the pros and entraps you fully into the tale onscreen.

During his journey through China, trying to stay alive amongst the Japanese troops and the other POWs of both British and American nationalism, he comes across a wonderful cast of characters. You have the great performances from Nigel Havers as the prison camp doctor and Miranda Richardson as a sickly British upper class woman, as the father and mother figures in Jim’s life. Havers had seen to it to help keep up the boy’s education and Richardson has given him a home with her husband and someone to care for him when everyone else really just looked after themselves. Another major role came from the great John Malkovich, playing the kind of character he does best—Basie, a man who survives and whose intelligence is higher than his social standing yet helps him keep his life of “crime” successful. Malkovich definitely is a friend to Jim, but one who will never sacrifice his own wellbeing for the boy. He keeps close to the child when it is needed and has no trouble severing ties when necessary. It is a great showing of character development when Jim realizes who it was that really cared for him, staying with Richardson at the end instead of going to the next camp and finally being able to stand up to Basie. Notice must also be made for Takatoro Kataoka as the young kamikaze pilot. His relationship with Bale across the prison camp’s barbwire fence showed a glimpse into humanity and the breaking of barriers that can happen when politics are thrown out. Theirs was a truly bonding friendship amongst the carnage and a nice contrast to it. I also can’t finish speaking about the cast without mention of a very young Ben Stiller; talk about an amusing surprise in a bit role at the start of his career.

Empire of the Sun reminded me of what Spielberg is capable of doing with the medium. Along with Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and Munich, among others, he can really tell an emotional story that lends itself well to the historical context of what is happening in its environment. Yes, this is a story about the ruthlessness of the Japanese in China during WWII, but it is also a tale of a boy’s survival by use of his kind heart, proper manners, and stunning smarts. While knowing what to do in situations by way of living in China his entire life, he is able to help those around him, but never seems unnatural as he delivers his advice like that of a child, almost as a game in many instances. He speaks a mile a minute and continues his life of making friends with everyone and never taking a break. The moment in which we find out why, when the doctor tells Jim to stop thinking for once and we finally get to see the emotion flow from him completely uninhibited, it is truly heartbreaking and at the same time a joy to see because that is exactly how a child in the same situation would have reacted. Phenomenal job all around and I really hope Spielberg has a few more of these left up his sleeve.

Empire of the Sun 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

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