Doubling down on the Oscarbait, we find our director continuing his turn toward subjects "more mature" than magical aliens or Nazi-killing archaeologists. And yet the severity of Empire of the Sun is met by a director who appears to be as high as a kite on his own sense of whimsy. Bizarrely, then, the actual result of this weird collision is also the first unambiguously great film the Serious Spielberg ever made.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tom Stoppard and Menno Meyjes (based on the novel by J.G. Ballard)
With Christian Bale (James Graham), Emily Richard (Mary Graham), Rupert Frazer (John Graham), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Victor), Peter Gale (Mr. Victor), Nigel Havers (Dr. Rawlins), Takataro Kataoka (The Boy Pilot), Masato Ibu (Sgt. Nagata), Joe Pantoliano (Frank), and John Malkovich (Basie)
Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun arose from the same impulses and ambitions that had led him, two years previously, to The Color Purple. Given this starting place, it should shock no one that the two pictures wind up obvious kindred. Both, of course, are adaptations of celebrated novels (in that case, it was Alice Walker's novel about a poor black woman winning a measure of dignity in a society that was dead set on denying it to her; in this one, it's J.G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical tome about a boy who, like himself, lived through the Second Sino-Japanese War as it merged into the broader global conflict of World War II). Both treat with subjects of grave seriousness (there, the effects of rape and abuse upon a child; here, the effect of war). Both were even adapted by the same person (in part, anyhow—playwright Tom Stoppard is the sole credited screenwriter here, but Menno Meyjes evidently had some hand in the matter.) Finally, both are characterized by the consummate visual storyteller behind the camera, resulting in two films where his sense of aesthetics sometimes runs away with him, to the point where the mood becomes gloriously gaudy with all its outrageous, Spielbergian overdetermination.
But then, just like in Purple, the moments where Empire's overreach is at its most apparent are also, by far, the best moments that Empire has—for they are the moments where the film most fully comes alive. This can still be true, even if the only reason it's coming alive in the first place is to viciously bully you into feeling all the feelings which its director wants you to feel.
Now, let's be clear: the highs of Empire do not quite reach the highs of Purple, at least not in terms of technique—and when they come, they also tend to feel slightly out-of-place, in the way that the similarly big and bullying moments of Purple did not. (However, I aver that this is not only a big part of Empire's charm, but also the larger part of its point. Cinematographer Allen Daviau's colorful romanticism is likewise more of a strength here than it was there.)
However—and this is the important part—even though they possess virtually identical runtimes, there is a single-mindedness to Empire that is totally absent from Spielberg's previous film. Purple was all-too content to sprawl about; but in Empire, the number of individual shots that do not directly concern its protagonist could probably be counted on two hands. The economy of Empire's presentation marks it as a substantially more mature work. And this is still the case, even as it explores the remarkable immaturity of its child hero—as, perhaps, only Spielberg could ever do.
So: as our rather unimpressive narrator informs us (by reading aloud the opening text that scrolls unattractively across the film's title card), it is December 1941. China is embroiled in a desperate war against Japan, and, as the narrator doesn't make very plain, the city of Shanghai, our initial setting, has been under Japanese rule for more than four years. I have no use at all for Empire's first sixty seconds, in case that wasn't crystal clear: yet the first actual shots of the film, of a Japanese patrol boat plying the Yangtze and smashing through coffins, thrown into the water for whatever reason—shots which, for that matter, are echoed poignantly in the last image of the film—set the scene inordinately better than that barely-informative text crawl. The Japanese naval ensign against the city says everything we really need to know about Shanghai's recent past—and its immediate future.
However, in Shanghai's International Settlement—protected by its extraterritoriality, the result of the various unequal treaties imposed upon China over the years—life goes on. As a million Chinese wait for the other shoe to drop, the Europeans continue on as before. Amongst the most prominent of these expatriates are the Graham family; John Graham is a British industrialist, and this has afforded him and his family a luxuriant, opulent mansion, quarantined away from the Chinese masses. Within these walls lives John's son, James—or Jamie, or Jim, depending upon who's addressing him and when—whom we recognize, immediately, as the very image of the spoiled-rotten British schoolboy. At least he has no overtly malicious streak; but a profound sense of entitlement permeates his every word and deed. He is imperious to his Chinese servants and shamelessly enamored with the Imperial Japanese military presently deployed to subjugate their country. In particular, he is obsessed with their marvelous aeroplanes—especially the Mitsubishi A6M, the legendary Zero.
I can absolutely relate.
For a while, we follow James, soaking in all his cynically-painted blitheness. On the margins, however, darkness is gathering—in one scene, extremely literally, as James runs afoul of a troop of Japanese soldiers. The stormclouds in the sky foreshadow, unmistakably, the end of everything he knows.
And, as we've been so clearly promised, everything changes on December 8, the day the Japanese declare war against the Western Allies. The Japanese forces occupy the International Settlement. The Grahams flee their home, seeking the "safety" of British Singapore. In the chaos, James loses track of his father, then his mother—and, for maximum ironic value, it's as he attempts to retrieve his lost toy Zero. Alone, first in his abandoned house, and then upon the streets of Shanghai, the lad soon finds himself captive of one of the city's more subtle predators, an American named Basie (along with his addle-brained sidekick, Frank). Basie will turn out to be mentor and tormentor alike to the boy over the next four years. Ultimately shipped off with Basie and Frank to an internment camp, James waits for the war to end.
As you can guess, Empire is the story of James losing his innocence one piece at a time, following him as he's torn from his rich boy idyll and subsequently thrown into the midst of war, experiencing its horrors both personally as well as from a distance. Indeed, on occasion, he even experiences them by what amounts to outright psychic phenomena—and the most fascinating thing about Empire of the Sun is the register it operates in, namely that of outright magical realism, which is most easily read as the ordinary fancies of a young boy corrupted into something akin to legitimate madness. (This is especially the case when he develops the delusion, based on evidence that should show the opposite, that he can return corpses back to life, like Jesus, or E.T.)
But James' affection for warplanes is clearly his defining trait. It begins as a quintessentially boyish infatuation—concerned mostly with their sheer coolness, it is divorced totally from the reality of their use. One of the most telling scenes in the film involves James' discovery of a crashed Japanese Zero, which he naturally climbs within in order to play fighter pilot. He eventually notices the bullet holes in the cockpit—and he smiles.
It's as true a frame as any in Spielberg's whole catalog. The director honestly gets this child's fascination with the deadly miracle of aviation—and condescends to it not at all. An unwillingness to condescend to children is, after all, one of Spielberg's greatest strengths as a storyteller; it arguably serves him even better here than it did in E.T. The really strange thing about James, you see, is that his worship of the weapons of war outlasts his trauma. It even intensifies in the wake of it. The child, who has previously remarked that he's recently become an atheist, has found a new outlet for his religious impulse. His God is the airplane.
(This is, one imagines, why the screenplay provides Spielberg's visuals such a useful crutch, in the form of an IJNAF airfield that just happens to neighbor James' internment camp.)
Empire, you see, is also a story about the lengths James goes to in order to get his innocence back. Much later, James shall mistake a vision he has, of an atom bomb going off on the horizon, as the soul of a friend escaping her corporeal form. And what could be more provocative than intermingling full-bore mystical sentiment with the city-killing device that ended the Pacific War (and, to this day, represents the apex of airborne warfare)? Of course, when he learns the truth of his vision, it is the last time he will have any illusions about anything. Yet there's no scene that more vividly showcases his mania, and how he uses it to shield himself from experiencing the real, adult emotions which he has no desire to feel, than in the pyrotechnic-heavy interdiction of the airfield by American P-51s. Does that American pilot really wave playfully at young James? It doesn't matter: that's what he saw; that's what he felt; and that's what matters. He will soon go on to salute, indifferent to their affiliation, the IJNAF's suicide pilots. It is not clear whether he comprehends their mission; but it is also not clear whether he would care.
Thus the most beautiful and (yes) spiritual moments of Empire demand we join James in his Church of the Sky. It is, in its way, even tempting: it is a naive and childish thing, but it also knows neither nation nor creed. It knows only the freedom the airplanes represent, and the bridge they offer, between humanity and heaven. (Yet the sheer physicality of James' aluminum idols is impressed upon us quite mightily: the vast majority of the vintage airpower on display consists of real WWII aircraft being flown around. Part and parcel to the intoxicating hugeness of the whole production, I can't think of anything outside The Right Stuff and Top Gun that indulges a character's love of airplanes this much. It's an enormous departure from the impoverished intimacy of The Color Purple.)
Obviously, a 153 minute film devoted entirely to a child protagonist represents a hell of a risk, even for a director celebrated for getting superb performances out of children. Luckily, Spielberg got Christian Bale—and there's a solid possibility that James represents both his finest role and his finest work. (It strikes you like a bullet to the face just how much more screen presence the man had before his voice changed, and he started bellowing all the time.)
Well, whatever: Bale's an outright miracle here, carrying this whole movie on his shoulders like it's nothing, capturing James' development with a light touch that serves the iffy plausibility of his character just shockingly well. The only times he falters at all is when the screenplay fails him, which is not very often, or when he's encased in that make-up job later in the film, intended to communicate a sickliness that is not, I'm afraid, remotely present in Bale's actual behavior. But the worst, I think, probably comes when Empire injects the barest minimum of sexuality into the proceedings, something that you'd think might be important to a sixteen year old boy (although you would be foolish to think this in the context of a Spielberg movie). The scene works on its merits, even if Spielberg's disdain for sex—manifested here as a bombing raid that conveniently takes the focus away from the two bodies James is ogling—remains unintentionally hilarious. Unfortunately, it is also around this time that you realize that Bale (thirteen during the entire production) has not aged one day in four pubescent years. (At the very least, they could've avoided pointing out his age in dialogue, since the best effort possible under the circumstances, apparently, was to give him a terrible haircut.)
Anyway, I'm sure it helped Bale to have such an indispensable scene partner in John Malkovich, who plays up all of Basie's transparent scumminess. Representing Spielberg at his most self-subverting, Basie has got to be his ugliest surrogate father of all. While Malkovich might play the man as "complicated," this is really only a disguise. He is, in fact, incredibly simple: his tremendous inconsistencies might appear to hint toward some kind of "complexity," but what we're really seeing is he's nothing but the sum total of his circumstance (not to mention a liar, a cheat, and—as James concludes—a bastard, and not the lovable kind).
As far as a story of survival goes, Empire of the Sun is, it must be admitted, not terrifically special in what it tells us. Yet, as a deliriously-subjective psychological portrait of a young man holding desperately onto his childhood, it is breathtaking in just how it tells it. It was (and remains) Spielberg's least commercially successful film. This is a terrible pity. It is one of his most artistically successful, after all—and its success on this front pointed the way forward for a man who was ready, for better and for worse, to "grow up," whatever the hell that really means.