I viewed "Empire of the Sun" on DVD as the first of Steven Spielberg's
twentieth century historical films. In an interview on the DVD, he
proclaims it to be a "child's view of war," linking it to his "E.T."-
oeuvre and predictively to his violent films to come, but it is
unexpectedly about something else.
It is a child's view of the tectonic clash of colonial empires, as the one upon which the sun never sets (the British) is dimmed by the rising sun (the Japanese), with them both trumped by the even brighter artificial sun of the U.S.'s super atom and economic power. For the boy, the continuing visual symbols for nature and man are the sun lots of beautiful sun rises, broiling noons and sunsets-- and airplanestoys, bombers, ruins, kamikazes and rescuers.
Through the autobiographical fiction of J.G. Ballard's original novel (and it is interesting to hear on the DVD interview what incidents are directly from his life), we start out seeing a Rudyard Kipling-like view of China. In this first act, we see arrogant, elitist Europeans hold court in an International Zone separated from the teaming poverty of Shanghai (and the filmmakers eerily recreate the original boundaries in the exact locale through the contemporary imperialism of Hollywood capitalism) that seems more pre-World War I than II. The added touch of having them dress up for a masquerade ball like Marie Antoinette, etc. is too heavy-handed.
While the adaptation is by Tom Stoppard, the film then becomes all about young Christian Bale's performance, in a Robert Louis Stevenson-like boy's adventure tale, and stunning visual set pieces by cinematographer Allen Daviau.
Bale is extraordinary. Watching him 20 years later, it is fascinating to see the mature actor within the child who even at this young age can produce boyish enthusiasm to desperation to exhaustion at the crack of "Action." Some of his best scenes are simply he alone, such as a resourceful kid who seems like a lone post-war survivor when he first misses the round-ups of Europeans.
It is probably because we are looking through his innocent eyes that the Japanese are shown far less stereotypically than most such movies, particularly as he establishes a tentative connection with a youthful flier (though through his young confusion distinctions between Chinese and Japanese are unfairly not clear). His youthful resiliency is a remarkably fresh take on war time conditions as he adapts to any situation and learns enough to help others as well as himself, recalling John Boorman's "Hope and Glory" that was released the same year.
A complete tonal shift occurs when he suddenly meets up with Americans who obviously recall characters from "Catch 22", marvelously played by a scheming John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano as his side kick. It was very effective that we only hear them for many minutes before we see their faces, as we perceive them from the child's angle in hearing the clear distinctions from his upbringing in their styles, culture and language. (I only found out from the DVD interviews that their characters were stranded Merchant Marines as I didn't pick that up from the dialog.) The practicality of the Americans is coolly emphasized in one harrowing scene when they take bets on whether Bale's "Jim" will survive a chase.
Miranda Richardson is notably not a stereotype. Just as Malkovich is an extremely reluctant paternal protector for Bale, Richardson is neither a snob nor maternal.
The art direction and images then take over, overwhelming any theme about the absurdities of war or clashes or complements of cultures, from the increasingly desperate internment camp to an Allied attack to a useless march to another encampment filled with the luxurious detritus of the imperialists. Even as the exact time span is only indicated indirectly and the body count mounts, by the end we are seeing one striking tableau after another.
British civilization seems too easily restored at the end after all we've seen.
|Plot summary||Plot synopsis||Ratings|
|Awards||External reviews||Parents Guide|
|Official site||Plot keywords||Main details|
|Your user reviews||Your vote history|