Empire of the Sun: Movie Review

Here’s my review of Empire of the Sun, the 1987 movie directed by Steven Spielberg. The script is by the great Tom Stoppard, but the story comes from a semi-autobiographical novel by James G. Ballard. I haven’t read it, but, curiously, I’ve read his sequel The Kindness of Women which in its final part deals with the making of the Spielberg’s film. A film that, among other things, marks the debut (as a protagonist!) of a very young Christian Bale.

Empire of the Sun is the story of four years in the life of Jim Graham (Christian Bale) between 1941 and 1945. In 1941, he’s in Shanghai, he’s the son of a wealthy English couple who have lived there for years, John and Mary (Rupert Frazer and Emily Richard). In a surreal atmosphere with the Japanese invading China, Jim idly spends his days attending masquerade parties but mostly playing all the time with Chinese servants rather than real friends.

Things change when all the British in China are put in prison camps by the Japanese due to the events of World War II. This proves very hard for these civilians accustomed to a comfortable life but now are suddenly forced to eat potatoes full of worms to survive. Moreover, Jim is separated from his parents in the chaos of the Japanese invasion and spends three years without them in a camp where his reference figure becomes the American criminal Basie (John Malkovich).

What about this movie? This is one of Spielberg’s most beautiful dramas and, probably, one of the finest dramas of all time. Empire of the Sun isn’t afraid to show the brutality of war, although it’s in the background as all the events revolve around Jim who’s forced by harsh reality to deal with things that in normal times he would’ve never seen: death, first of all, but also misery (think of the strong contrast between the refrigerator full of candies at the beginning and the rotten potatoes in the prison camp), and human cruelty. Sometimes Jim ism’t even able to recognize such cruelty: just think of him idolizing Basie despite the fact that the American doesn’t care about the boy’s life, so much so that he bets on his death after giving him the very dangerous task of going out of the camp to try to catch animals to eat that probably aren’t even there.

In 1945, at the end of the movie, Jim is a disillusioned child who has changed a lot compared to the initial one who played with toy planes: he stare is empty, he has lost his innocence in the worst possible way, due to war, the greatest evil created by man. But let me take advantage of the work by Matavitatau’s Nick who wrote a series of great articles about Spielberg’s filmography (in Italian) and list the three main points that he highlighted when writing about Empire of the Sun:

  • the first is the theme of the loss of innocence of which Nick remembers many scenes and symbolisms throughout the whole film.
  • The second is the series of Spielbergian stylistic features that shine in Empire of the Sun such as shooting dark silhouettes against backlight, the attention to details (Basie’s round window used as an eye looking at the world is amazing), and the treatment of guilt and the responsibility of the external/adults’ world, which is evident here with the war and the scene of the shock wave of the atomic explosion.
  • The third is the presence of typical Spielbergian scenes such as those in which the characters look out of the frame or surreal ones like when Jim walks among the sparks coming out of the plane under construction.

But, as I said, this (and much more) can be found on Matavitatau, you won’t regret visiting that amazing blog! As for me, I would add that this is the Spielberg that I like the most: he didn’t feel the need to please everyone or to send reassuring messages, a bit like in the case of Schindler’s List (1993), just to name another example. I also found Christian Bale impressive: he was only 12/13 years old at the time and he managed to shine even next to actors of the caliber of John Malkovich! And there are so many other amazing things to mention, like the soundtrack by the usual John Williams, the cinematography by Allen Daviau, the splendid scenes with planes flying in the sky (some radio-controlled scale models, some real planes “rigged” to look like WWII planes)…

Empire of the Sun is a fascinating film in every aspect, from the story to the most insignificant detail and the mastery of everyone involved in making it. I Recommend it without a shadow of a doubt, ciao!

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