Movie Review #760
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tom Stoppard. (Novel: J.G. Ballard.) Uncredited writer: Menno Meyjes. Produced by Kathleen Kenned, Frank Marshall, and Steven Spielberg for Amblin Entertainment and Warner Bros. Starring Christian Bale, John Malkovich, and Joe Pantoliano. Credited cameo: Ben Stiller. Uncredited cameo: J.G. Ballard. Distributed by Warner Bros. in limited release on December 9, 1987; and in wide release on December 25, 1987. Rated PG. Runs 153 minutes.
Steven Spielberg has directed three movies about World War II. “Empire of the Sun” (1987), “Schindler’s List” (1993), and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). While it’s not the best of the three, “Empire of the Sun” is the most creative of the three, and most obviously a movie Steven Spielberg made.
Young Jamie (Christian Bale) sees nothing wrong with Japanese people. He sees the war around him as vividly as his parents and any other Briton in the Shanghai International Settlement. He understands that China is at war, Japan is at odds with China, and that Japan is taking over the International Settlement. But he has a great amount of respect for “the enemy.” It may be because he doesn’t know any better, but still, he’s a kid, and his vision of war seems unique compared to a great number of other war movies. So we can’t really blame him for wanting to join the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service when he’s older, nor can we blame him for making friends with several Japanese soldiers and civilians throughout the film. It adds greatly to the beauty of the movie, which, might I say, is colossal.
In the eyes of such a director, J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel becomes nothing if not an emotional, captivating, and overall rejuvenating story. Much of what influences Spielberg are his childhood experiences, and there’s certainly a boyish attitude in “Empire of the Sun”. We smile at the movie because it’s lively and quite often, it’s adorable. The movie is such an escapade that I struggle to decide whether “war movie” describes it as accurately as “wartime coming-of-age movie.” (Though we can say for a fact that “Empire of the Sun” is in no way an anti-war movie.)
“Empire of the Sun” has problems, though, and most of those are in the performances. While a debuting Christian Bale delivers his role emphatically and with much pathos, there’s dialogue suffering throughout the movie. In the very beginning, a Briton commands his driver, “Take the Wang Pu Road. Let’s avoid the crowds.” Not that I blame him for wanting to take back roads, because we all know that back roads are convenient, and we all know that convenience is a good thing, but the actor (whose name I am unable to find) delivers this line with an odd sort of intonation. It’s as if he were trying to tell us ever so blatantly, “Take the Wang Pu Road, because that way, there’ll be Imperial Japanese soldiers flooding the streets, and they will surround us and attack us on our way to church.” The line delivery always feels forced or awkward throughout the film, and this might just be the first instance.
Also, can I just say that “Empire of the Sun” takes forever? I really, really loved the story, and it held my attention for the bulk of the film, but this is a horrendously paced two and a half hours. Nonetheless, Spielberg has added the endearing and vibrant perspective of a young one to a story we’re familiar with. It drags, but it’s interesting enough to stay with, regardless. ✴
– Alexander Diminiano