We thought we’d take a look back at Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun as, you know, it deserves it. We reviewed J.G. Ballard’s book a few months back and recommend you all get out there and read it, but the movie adaptation is also a special piece of work.
Has everyone forgotten Empire of the Sun? We rarely see it mentioned in the film press. In fact, the only time Empire of the Sun ever seems to get a mention these days is when Christian Bale has some of his early work referenced. Due to this, we’ve decided to honour the film as, frankly, it’s an epic and it deserves adoration.
Empire of the Sun
Author J.G. Ballard was growing up in Shanghai when WWII really kicked off, causing chaos in the vicinity and his family’s internment in a Japanese POW camp.
He adapted his experiences into Empire of the Sun (released in 1985, he was primarily a science-fiction writer until then), with central character Jim Graham based on himself.
Young Jim is stranded in Shanghai and ultimately left to fight for survival in a POW camp, where he comes across an assortment of individuals who, in their own way, shape the rapidly growing Jim’s personality.
It’s a coming of age story set in WWII, essentially, but it’s highly charged and emotional, which was perfect territory for Spielberg.
The plot allows the famed director to apply typically high artistic standards to his work, along with considering his popular themes of youth and wonder. Importantly, J.G. Ballard approved of the film adaptation, so that is rather excellent.
As with many Spielberg films (Jaws, Jurassic Park etc.) the development of characters is as important as the script. There’s no cheesy dialogue here (helped by the fact it’s based on J.G. Ballard’s excellent novel, from which quite a lot of dialogue is taken verbatim) or lazy characterisation. It’s straight up compelling portrayals of real, desperate people.
For us, the mercurial Basie (John Malkovich on excellent, slippery form) makes the film. When we first meet him he’s wearing a hat and is looking ruggedly handsome. His greed leads to an early mishap, however, when Japanese soldiers floor him with bokken (wooden samurai sticks), finally revealing him to be distinctly human and, indeed, dramatically balding.
For the rest of the film Basie’s all over the place. Primarily concerned with his survival, Jim is kept in tow as he can perform oddjobs. As Jim idolises Basie, he doesn’t have many problems with risking his life for the American.
In the meantime, Basie’s endlessly conniving ways earn him numerous severe beatings in the POW camp, landing him in hospital for long periods of time.
There’s also Frank (Joe Pantoliano), Basie’s cohort, who is also rugged and handsome on his first appearance with a hat and stubble, but is soon revealed to be somewhat pathetic, balding, and merely a grown-up version of Jim – minus the intelligence.
Then there’s English actor Nigel Havers who plays the intellectual, pompous Dr. Rawlins. He becomes a father figure for Jim and there’s an extraordinary scene with Bale and Havers as the doctor attempts to calm young Jim whilst P-51 Mustangs blast past in the background, mere feet away.
We also have to mention Jim (performed brilliantly by Christian Bale). He’s a precocious little git, and often annoying, but generally is endearing in his naïve, childlike way. That’s what being a kid’s all about, after all.
Highly Charged Emotions
There’s a sense of human frailty being exposed throughout the film. For instance, the tough-guy façade held by Basie and Frank is tested by the brutal situations the two face. Frank ultimately falters and becomes a feeble character, whilst Basie (through sheer bloody will) holds his nerve despite the teeth he loses in the process.
It’s beautifully shot, the gorgeous Welsh lullaby Suo Gan drifts subtly in and out, the performances are remarkable, Malkovich is at his peak, and there are many iconic scenes on offer. You can also bet that kid will grow up and become Batman, or something, to wreak revenge on what is happening to him. Bale always remembers.
We’d laid down the claim it’s better than the book. Indeed, there’s exhilarating stuff here, which makes us wonder why this film’s forgotten in amongst Spielberg’s catalogue, although maybe that’s the problem. When you’re up against Jaws, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan, getting attention is sort of tough.