Empire of the Sun must have been something that made Steven Spielberg all the more excited to work on being that, before each film he directs, he watches four specific films- The Searchers, Seven Samurai, It's a Wonderful Life, and Lawrence of Arabia- the latter of those four, and the fact that Lean originally intended to direct this film, indicate how he wanted to go with the style, the sprawling and epic tone. But if in the end I didn't feel as totally satisfied as I thought I should (it's been called one of the most underrated films of Spielberg/the 80's), it might be that parts become more interesting and worth watching than for the whole. Acting-wise the two main forces in the film, one a young, brilliant-as-a-child actor Christian Bale embodies Jamie/Jim as a kid who does go through a transformation, the typical 'coming-of-age' where he loses more than just his parents in the chaos but part of himself. The other is John Malkovich, who plays the surrogate/friend during war-time to the boy, a more hard-edged but sharp guy who's out for himself but not completely shut-off from others.
And as with any given Spielberg film, at least one or two visuals will strike up as being pretty close to what could be called "pure cinema", where you feel a kind of rush on the back of your neck at what can be done with color, light, composition, people (optional), and music. One of these might be in the first hour of the film- maybe my favorite chunk for just consistency- as Jamie first goes through the toughest part, put into the disillusionment of his fantasies of aircrafts and flying and out on his own. Jamie gets lost from his parents in a massive sea of a crowd in the city, and it's a reminder how astounding Spielberg can be with the control of it all, and how every detail adds up to an emotional toll. Once Ballard's original story (based on truth, how much I don't know) reaches into the prison camp, it becomes spotty; sometimes parts of the story work, and sometimes they don't and become a little dramatically inert. Never does Spielberg completely lose his craftsmanship, but there's something not there. Part of it might be the excision of the main chunk of war years (1941 right to 1945 in a fade), but another part of it might be somethings that just ring a little more to the sentimental than Spielberg might realize.
When Jim, for example, sees the Japanese fliers on the airfield in some minor ceremony, and he starts to sing his old choir-boy song, it just didn't seem right after such better, smaller scenes between Malkovich and Bale. Still, through this Spielberg does provide another point of great cinema, in the shot that inspired the poster of the towering sun with the plane flying across it. It's little rousing moments like this that do make the film worth seeing, but if you're coming into it after already seeing many of his great works (Schindler, Private Ryan, Munich), the real devastation from being in this situation is never as fully realized as past some kind of brighter nostalgia. There are some darker moments, but it never adds up, and certainly not from the point of view of a conflicted boy who goes through this experience of Japanese internment like Lawrence in a small way- he's a little mad, though courageous. But through Spielberg's own epic ambitions, there's something lost with really making it entertaining. It's bound to find more viewers as the years go on, and it was unfairly maligned upon its original release. Yet the irony doesn't escape me that it is sort of a minor work for the director, working on a huge canvas of locales, extras, and actors both Western and Eastern.
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