I have had the hardest time trying to figure out why Empire of the Sun doesn’t work. I saw the movie when it came out 30 years ago and I hadn’t seen it again until last night. My reaction remains the same now as it did back then. It has gorgeous imagery that rolls around in my brain but I am at a loss to understand why the connective tissue of those images doesn’t move me as it should. All the pieces are here. All the parts are in place. All the elements have been pulled together into a glorious production. There’s a grand epic sweep. There’s a great story being told. There are moments of brilliance. All the great Spielberg trademarks are present – this feels very much like a Spielberg production. So, when it is all over . . . why don’t I feel anything? Why does this film leave me cold?
After the experience of making his first “grown-up movie” with The Color Purple there may have been in Spielberg’s heart the burning desire to follow it up. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is admirable of him to want to grow as an artist and I suppose it came from his desire to finally make a film that delves into his full-boar obsession with The Second World War. The problem is that he made a film that is difficult to care about.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by English novelist J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun tells a relatively simple story amid complex and difficult circumstances. It concerns a young English boy named Jamie Graham (played by 12 year-old Christian Bale) who is living with his wealthy parents in the Shanghai International Settlement in China in the midst of World War II. But the dark clouds are forming and everyone is keenly aware that an attack and subsequent occupation by the Japanese is eminent. During the rush to escape the country before the enemy attacks, Jamie and his parents are separated and young Jamie finds himself alone in a country mired in too much chaos to care about his needs.
The rest of the movie is his coming-of-age adventure as Jamie first wanders the occupied streets of Shanghai and eventually finds himself prisoner in Suzhou Creek Internment Camp where he develops an uneasy alliance with an American expatriate named Basie (John Malkovich) who treats the kid like an adult, but not exactly as a friend. He even gives him a new name, christening him “Jim.”
Despite my underwhelmed reaction to the film, I don’t find it a total washout. It is a great looking production – I felt as if I were in China during World War II and not on some phony soundstage. I liked the supporting cast including John Malkovich as Basie and Joe Pantiliano as his buddy Frank. There are also nice performances by Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers and a very young Ben Stiller.
I liked parts of Christian Bale’s performance – this was his second film. I liked that Jim was allowed to grow up through his experience and I liked that he was also allowed to retain some of his childlike qualities in this inhospitable terrain. Yet, he has moments that leave me baffled. For example, he has a near-fatal obsession with military aircraft that, several times, seem to be responsible for nearly getting him killed. There is a moment that is supposed to be an emotional high when American Air Force P-15 Mustang aircrafts bomb the camp and Jim is too busy cheering the beauty of the planes to notice that he’s only a few feet from an explosion. It’s a baffling moment that didn’t give me the emotional charge that I think Spielberg was aiming for. Plus, he has moments that are just aggravating. I realize that the circumstances of war are affecting his sanity, but I get irritating with his habit of repeating sentences over and over again and doing things out of symbolism instead of practicality.
The problem is that there were far too many moments in Empire of the Sun, in which the movie kept reaching for my heart and coming away empty handed. The movie rises and swells to great emotional heights but I just couldn’t go with it. And I’m not sure I understand what I am supposed to feel when the movie is over. In my mind I kept thinking that this is the story of a kid in the midst of war – shouldn’t the circumstances be uglier and less adventurous? This is war, but it very often plays like an issue of Boys’ Life. For a director with such a talent for connecting with his audience, I found this one to be a struggle to get close to.
This wouldn’t be the last time that Spielberg stumbled. Starting with this film, over the next five years, his films would slip into a pattern of lackluster mediocrity. Sometimes experimental, sometimes just roused for entertainment, the second half of the 1980s would be a relatively dark time for the most popular director in American history. He would bounce back though but we had to get through some underwhelming stuff to get there.