Thursday, August 16, 2007

DAY 16: Empire of the Sun (1987)

Continuing his artistic "adolescence" (a period where he tried to grow up but didn't quite succeed) Spielberg followed the controversial Color Purple with the epic wartime drama Empire of the Sun. Although the latter did not connect with either critics or audiences at the time of its release, and although it still suffers from some of his typical storytelling indulgences and occasional heavy-handedness, it nonetheless manages to surpass the preceding film with a more mature treatment of its subject matter and a greater congruity between its content and its style. Indeed, while it may not be one of his masterpieces, I believe Empire of the Sun is perhaps Spielberg's most underrated work.

In many ways the story of Empire of the Sun seems to have been designed for Steven Spielberg because it combines several of his signature themes with his filmmaking strengths. It concerns a young British boy (children) named James Graham who is living in Shanghai with his parents (family) in Shanghai when the Japanese invade (WWII). During the attack James is separated from his parents (divorce) and placed in a Japanese labor camp for four years before eventually reuniting with his parents. In addition to these common Story elements, Empire of the Sun also contains two Spielbergian trademarks. Firstly, there is light. As an immense lover of light, Spielberg uses it to great advantage throughout Empire. He even allows his ultimate symbol for light and life--the sun--to appear frequenty on screen (as he has done in many of his films), on the film's one-sheet (as it did in Color Purple) and, for the first time, in the film's title. Secondly, there's flight (a Spielbergian hallmark that we haven't discussed much before now). Although it has been featured in such films as Close Encounters, E.T., "The Mission" and even both Raiders films, Empire of the Sun not only works flight into the film as a major plot point but employs it in a symbolic manner, associating it with religious/metaphysical ideas (flight would also feature prominently into the plots of three of Spielberg's subsequent four films).

However, what makes Empire an especially significant entry in the ouevre of Spielberg (at least in the opinion of this critic) is that it manifests on screen what may be Spielberg's purest expression of his desire to "grow up;" to see reality through adult eyes and operate in an adult world. In the guise of the young Jamie (later given the more grown-up name of "Jim") Spielberg creates a character who views the events of war initially through the playful, optimistic and inexperienced vision of a child: seeing all of the battles and air raids as more or less games being played out for his own amusement. Eventually, through constant exposure to the horrific realities that war brings (the hunger, the death, the pain, the suffering, etc) Jim's fantasies are exploded (literally) and he not only becomes completely independant--learning to survive without the aid of any parental figures--but to think unselfishly, responsibly and maturely. Empire of the Sun is, at its core, a story about a boy becoming a man: a reality that Spielberg himself was desperately trying to achieve in real life.

When British director David Lean, whom Spielberg had always admired, contacted Steven requesting that he acquire the rights to an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard which he hoped to direct (with Spielberg producing), he was more than happy to comply. Unfortunately the story had already been bought by someone else and Spielberg had to return to the revered filmmaker with the bad news. When the rights did become available, Spielberg happily passed along the information to Lean who by that time had changed his mind. Lean then suggested that Spielberg himself direct the film since it was closer to his sensebilities anyway. This was music to Spielberg's ears who had admitted: "From the moment I read the novel, I secretly wanted to do it myself. A child saw things through a man's eyes as opposed to a man discovering things through the child in him. It was just the reverse of what I felt was my credo." Spielberg also recognized the Truffaut-like aspects of the project. "I was attracted to the idea that this was [about] a death of innocence, not an attenuation of childhood, which by my own admission and everybody's impression of me is what my life has been."

In the role of Jim, Spielberg cast (out of more than 4,000 auditioners) a 13-year-old Welsh newcomer named Christan Bale and once again coached an honest, natural and believable performance out of a juvenile actor. Of course, a lot of the credit must also be given to young Bale's enormous talent, which he has demonstrated many times in a variety of different roles over the course of the twenty-year career that followed. In the part of Basie, the clever American who takes Jim under his wing (for a time becoming a sort of surrogate father figure), Spielberg hired up-and-coming star/Academy Award nominee John Malkovich of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Rounding out the cast were a collection of Asian, American and English faces: some fresh (including a young Ben Stiller and Joe Pantaliano as other Americans) and some more familiar (Miranda Richardson as the long-suffering Mrs. Victor, Passage to India's Nigel Havers as the altruistic Dr. Rawlins and Pink Panther's Burt Kwouk in a small role as a Christmas party guest; author J.G. Ballard himself also made a cameo appearance in the party scene_. Playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) helped write the screenplay and Spielberg, once again, used Allen Daviau as cinematographer, Michael Kahn as editor and John Williams (absent from The Color Purple) contributed one of his most lyrical and sensetive scores ever.

Wanting authenticity from the very beginning, Spielberg shot the film in the People's Republic of China (the first major Hollywood movie ever to do so). Since they were limited to twenty-one days, Spielberg ensured that only the scenes which absolutely had to be shot in Shanghai would be. Even working under such intense time constraints, Spielberg knew exactly what he wanted for each shot and was determined to get it. Several shots employed thousands of extras, thirty-five Japanese/Chinese translators to convey Spielberg's directions to the crowd and hundreds of policemen to keep order. It was Spielberg's most epic undertaking up to that point. After completing photography in China, Spielberg traveled to England to shoot in Sunningdale, Cheshire and Knutsford, Berkshire (as well as returning to Esltree Studios for interiors). Some filming was also done in Trebujena, Spain.

When it was released in theatres in 1987, Empire received lukewarm reviews. Although, as usual, Spielberg's stunning visuals were praised, his slick, stylized handling of a gritty topic, once again, rubbed people the wrong way. David Ansen of Newsweek observed that "this is a secondhand film, the war filtered through the sensebility of--and atsonishing technique--of Hollywood's greatest virtuoso. And that may account for both its greatness and its failings." Chicago Sun-times critic Roger Ebert wrote: "The movie is wonderfully staged and shot, and the prison camp looks and feels like a real place. But Spielberg allows the airplanes, the sun and the magical yearning to get in his way." In a more positive review Janet Maslin of the New York Times said that much of the film was "set forth so spectacularly that the film seems to speak a language all its own. In fact it does for its clear Spielberg works in a purely cinematic idiom that is quite singular. Art and artifice play equal parts in the telling of this tale. And the latter, even though intrusive at times, is part and parcel of the film's overriding style." It also perhaps didn't help that two other films (also based on true stories) were released that same year which dealt with the subject of WWII as seen through the eyes of a young boy: John Boorman's Hope and Glory and Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants. Although it could be argued that Spielberg's film might not hold up quite as strongly in comparison to these others, taken on its own merit it is rather extraordinary.

It can be seen as somewhat ironic that the director who for years had been attacked for not attempting more mature films was now being criticized for that very thing. Again, although the film does have its share of Spielbergian sentimental moments, the overall effect of the film is stunning. It really should be approached less as a traditional WWII story, a document of a particular time and place, and more as a "tone poem," a Terence Malick-like meditation on the sights, sounds and ideas that accompany war (except without the narration). Like Copolla's Apocalypse Now the film starts out with a conventional narrative style only to have it descend into a more psychological/spiritual experience; a glimpse into the mind and heart of the young boy who is witnessing these harrowing events and, consequently, gradually "losing touch with reality" as a result. It may be quite surreal at times but, unlike The Color Purple, that particular aesthetic is consistent with Spielberg's approach to the material.

Empire of the Sun opens with a crawl (and a rather unnecessary narration) informing us that "in 1941, when Japan and China were in a state of undeclared war, thousands of Westerners, protected by the diplomatic security of the International Settlement, were living in Shanghai." For the first time in a Spielberg film there are no opening credits. Only the main title--a beautiful piece of animation wherein the words "EMPIRE OF THE SUN" are lit from behind by a rising sun--appears underneath the crawl. A black screen fades up to images of flotsam and jetsam (including wooden crates containing bodies) floating in Shanghai Harbor (a shot reminiscent of the opening of Hitchcock's Lifeboat). The voice of a child starts to sing the lovely "Suo Guan" and we move in on a church where a boys choir has joined in the angelic voice of the solo singer. We are then introduced to Jamie, the soloist. He is looking around and yawning, bored by the whole affair. The juxtaposition of a child singing beautifully but coldly, with no apparent passion or interest in what he is doing, is an interesting one. It establishes Jamie's character as a skeptical participant in the religious rituals in which he finds himself.

Back at his home, his father engaged in some golf in the backyard while the mother plays paino in the living room. Jamie rides his bike around holding a flaming toy plane, much to he chagrin of the family's Asian female servant who chases Jamie frantically fearful that he will burn the whole property down. In this, and the following scenes, Jamie's spoiled, selfish nature is played out in none-too-ambigious manner. When the same female servant tries to obey the parents' wishes in keeping Jamie from eating before bed, he responds: "You have to do what I say." As his parents tuck him in for the night, Jamie starts to talk about God and why the reason we can never see him is because he's "always playing tennis." This scene and the earlier one of Jamie playing with the toy airplane establish the boy's love for and fascination with flying (his room also being filled with model aircraft). As his parents leave the room Jamie asks: "If God is above us, does it mean 'up'--like flying?" Thus, Jamie (and by association Spielberg) imbibes the act of flying with some metaphysical significance: associating flight with the divine.

One particular shot in this scene of an "idyllic" family is virtually identical to the famous painting by Norman Rockwell (a favorite artist of Spielberg's) depicting a father holding a newspaper in his hand as a mother covers up their sleeping boys with a bed sheet. Interestingly, the title of the painting is "Freedom from Fear." This very much applies to Jamie's situation right now. He feels warm and safe at this point in his life. There is no discomfort. There is no inescurity. His parents take care of his every need and, as a result, he has no fear. This will all change shortly however.

The following day, the family leaves for a Christmas masquerade party. Jamie is dressed in an Aladdin-style costume (his and his parents gaudy outfits serving as a stark contrast to the poor, dirty masses teeming the streets they must pass through in order to arrive at their destination) and carries a toy glider. Once there, Jamie plays outdoors with his glider, throwing it into the air and watching as it sails around freely in the sky. Before chasing off after it, the host of the party (Max) says: "I hear you've resigned from the scouts." to which Jamie replies: "I've become an atheist!" Like Indiana Jones before him, Jamie is unconvinced of the existence of God. Flying is perhaps the closest thing Jamie can ever find that approaches anything supernatural. What follows next is a fantastic sequence wherein Jamie stumbles upon a crashed airplane, climbs into the cockpit and pretends that he is engaged in air-to-air combat with the "enemy": namely, his glider which the wind whips and whirls around him in remarkably well-orchestrated manner (almost as if guided by an invisble hand). This is one of those scenes that tends to either turn people off to the conceit or engage their imagination and fully involve them in the world of the film. Personally, I'm in the latter category. I think the scene is a magnificent little ballet between the boy and the toy (aided in no small part by Daviau's lighter-than-air photography, Kahn's wonderful editing and Williams' ethereal music). It also foreshadows an incredible sequence that will occur later in the film where Jamie "dances" with real aircraft during a real air raid.

After his little "battle" with the glider, Jamie then steps down out of the plane and climbs a nearby hill to retrieve it where he accidentally stumbles upon a group of Japanese soldiers waiting for something. The mood has suddenly changed from whimsical to suspenseful, the harsh reality of the war intruding into Jamie's fantasy for the first (but not last) time in the film. Jamie's father and Max call out to Jamie to not run but simply turn and walk toward them slowly. Jamie does so and every soldier climbs to the top of the hill to watch as Jamie and the two men casually depart. Max suggests that as things seem to be heating up, his friend should take Mary and their boy and get out soon. On the car ride home, John announces they're going to spend the next few nights in a hotel.

In the early morning of the first night at the hotel, explosions rock the city and great lights fill the sky. Shanghai is under attack. John tries to get his family to safety but the commotion in the street is so intense that he loses the grip of his wife's hand and gets carried away by the crowd. "Hang on to Jamie!" are the last words he is heard crying out to her. Mary tries desperately to hold on to Jamie's hand, telling him "Jamie, don't let go." Like other Spielbergian mothers, Mary is committed to protecting her son. In fact, it is really Jamie's fault that the two will soon become separated.

Someone bumps into Jamie and he drops his toy plane. For a split-second he lets go of his mother's hand to retrieve it. It is a decision that will change the course of his life forever. When he turns back she is gone, having been swept away by the force of the crowd herself. Jamie climbs to the top of a car to try to find his mother and when he finally spots her she is already quite a distance away from him. He screams "MOM! MOMMY!" and she yells at him to go home because she'll meet him there. Immediately shots ring out as Chinese militia fire at the Japanese soldiers marching down the street. Miraculously Jamie avoids getting hit, weaving his way around the carnage with an almost immortal nature. He does, however, see a man get shot down right in front of him, almost within his reach. His expression is one of horror but also of fascination. He has never seen a man get killed before, so he almost doesn't know what to make of it. Before the film is done, though, he'll see many more.

Jamie returns home but finds the place abandoned. He runs up the stairs and notices a mess in his mother's bedroom, the floor being covered with talcom powder. As author Doug Brode observes: "Like Robinson Crusoe noticing Friday's footprints on the beach, a wide-eyed Jamie spots a footprint in the talc. He smiles, intrigued by this image, and steps closer. Slowly, however, the smile disappears from his face. His innocence becomes sorely tested when he finds more footprints and jagged lines, resembling the scraping of fingers across the surface of the floor, suggesting a struggle... perhaps even rape. As he stares at the evidence, Jamie becomes aware that somrthing terrible has happened in this house. Again, the painful reality has intruded into Jamie's safe universe. It is a metaphorical (as well as perhaps literal) violation and to keep that cognition from coming into being Jamie rushes to the window and throws it open, allowing the wind to blow away all the powder and its implications." He runs down the stairs and sees his former servants carrying valuable furniture out of the house. Jamie yells at them: "What do you think you're doing?" The woman turns, silently walks up to Jamie and slaps him across the face. Jamie is shocked. Nobody has ever done that to him before. He looks almost as if he wants to cry but is still too stunned to do so. The woman the goes right back to work, having done what she wanted to do for a long time.

After spending many days in the empty estate waiting for his parents to come, eating every last scrap of food available and rebelliously riding his bicycle through the house Jamie realizes he's going to starve if he doesn't so something. He rides his bike into town to try and turn himself over to the Japanese hoping to be put someplace where he'll get some food. He approaches the first group of soldiers he can find. As they are sitting around a table eating a meal, he gets their attention and holds up his hands saying "I surrender." They laugh mockingly as they mimic his words and actions. Jamie cannot seem to get himself captured. Nobody cares. He has become the boy that nobody wants.

At one point Jamie runs into an American named Frank (Joe Pantoliano) who nearly hits Jamie with his truck. Frank takes him back to his hiding place where Jamie meets another American named Basie (John Malkovich). Basie allows Jamie to share in his cooked rice and also gives him "a new name to go with his new life. He calls him "Jim." This name change is significant as it is the first step the boy will take toward maturing into a grown-up. If he is going to leave his childish ways behind, he must also leave his childish name behind. Jim happily adopts this new name. In doing so he is also giving tremendous control over his life to this new friend. Jim clearly admires Basie and wants to emulate/please him. Thus, Basie will become essentially a mentor to Jim. As a tough American sailor, he represents everything romantic and heroic. As the film progresses basie's true character will become more and more apparent to Jim.

After a series of misadventures result in Jim, Basie and Frank getting captured by the Japanese, they end up in a large warehouse with hundreds of other prisoners of war (including Max). It is here that Spielberg introduces three other significant characters: Dr. Rawlins, who will become an academic teacher to Jim and the Victors who will become sort of foster parents to Jim (if perhaps not very loving foster parents). Seeing that people are dying of disease by the dozens in this place, Jim realizes that the only way to survive is to get selected by their captors and taken out of there. Basie, Jim, Dr. Rawlins, Frank, Max and the Victors are all chosen and driven to Soochow Creek labor camp.

At this point the story leaps ahead four years and we pick up Jim in his new life. We first see him talking briefly with a Japanese boy who lives on the other side of the fence that surrounds the camp (this boy is seen playing with a glider very similar to Jim's earlier in the film; this sets up a kinship between them and also introduces the familiar Spielbergian theme of communication). Jim has grown accustomed to camp living, trading goods and services with a series of different people, running back and forth between various places (his "house," the hospital, the "mess hall", etc) and groups of people (the young children, the British, the Americans, even the head of the camp Sergeant Nagata). What is remarkable is that through make-up and acting Christian Bale really does look like he's aged four years even though clearly the filmmakers did not shut down production for that length of time allowing him to grow. He is starting to look like a new person: first the name, now the appearance. Little by little the old Jim is disappearing. One day Jim enters the hospital where Dr. Rawlins is trying to revive a female patient. He asks for assistance and so Jim starts pumping the woman's chest. Alas, it is to no avail. The woman is dead but Jim thinks he sees her eyes move to look at him. Excited that he could "bring her back" he starts pushing faster and harder until Rawlins tells him that he only pumped a little blood to her brain for a moment. That's all.

After visiting Basie and learning that he plans to try and escape at some point, Jim returns to his home and his new "family" (the Victors) who seem to resent having to take care of him. That night, as Jim hears faint explosions, he awakens and looks out the window to see lights in the distance, but his interest is soon grabbed by something else. His adopted "father" has started kissing his "mother" in her sleep. Jim's utter ignorance of and inexperience with sex causes him to regard this intimate scene with a keener interest than the spectacular battles outside. This is another indicator of Jim's gradual development into a grown-up. The formerly "romantic" appeal of bombs has now been replaced by a fascination for more "adult" activities.

The following morning, at the behest of Basie and in order to try and earn his way into the American group, Jim sneaks under the wire surrounding the camp to investigate whether there are really mines out there or not. This episode starts to reveal Basie's cold, calculating and manipulative nature. He may not, as he says, believe there are any mines out there but he is willing to put the life of a young boy at risk to prove it. Although a soldier almost discovers Jim, he is saved at the last minute by the same Japanese boy whom Jim established contact with from across the fence. The boy points the solider away from Jim and after he has left turns and smiles at Jim, indicating that he knew where Jim was but helped him anyway. Jim smiles back. He now has another friend in the camp. And so, Jim has survived his ordeal and become an honorary "American in the process." He moves out of the Victors' place and in with the Americans.

As Jim is now allowed to come into the American's bunker whenever he pleases, he learns that the time Basie plans to escape is getting closer and closer. Jim has made Basie promise to take him along with him and reminds him of his promise. Basie says he remembers and he will not forget. At that moment, Sgt. Nagata enters and finds that Basie has been stealing some of his belongings. He knock Basie to the ground, allowing him a quick second to tell Jim: "You're in charge of my stuff." He then proceeds to beat Basie horribly. In the following scene we see Basie lying in a bed, badly bruised and bloody as Jim tries to comfort him saying that when he finds his parents Basie could stay with them. Basie tries to make sure that Jim isn't feeling sorry for him because that would be terribly detrimental to his pride. After a brief silence, Basie turns to Jim and asks: "What are you doing here? I told you to look after my stuff." Jim guiltily admits: "They were bigger than me." Thus, all of Basie's earthly possessions have been taken by his fellow Americans and Jim, because of his youth and size, was unable to prevent it. Basie's utilitarianism become blatant here. His "stuff" is more important than his friendship with Jim and he clearly regrets putting a "kid" in charge of his things. After Basie recovers, he wanders quietly into the bunker and sits in his now bare room. Jim is waiting for him but he's so ashamed to have "let Basie down" that he silently grabs his suitcase filled with all of his belongings (paper clippings, toys and other childish things) and just leaves. What follows is, I think, the most extraordinary moment in this or any Spielberg film.

In the light of the early morning sun, Jim witnesses the initiation and maiden voyage of three Kamikaze pilots. As they sing their Japanese anthem Jim starts to sing the same song he did in the beginning of the film. The pilots climb into their cockpits and take off. As the song finishes the beauty and wonder of the moment is violently interrupted by one of the planes exploding in mid-air. American bombers are attacking the air base next to the camp. Jim runs to the roof of one of the buildings and watches as planes strafe the runways and hangars explode in great balls of flame.

Jim catches sight of one plane in particular (a P-51) and sees the pilot waving at him. What makes this exchange truly extraordinary is that to this day it is not clear to me whether Jim really saw the pilot wave or whether he only thought he did. The ambiguty is further enhanced by John Williams' score (which, as he did with Close Encounters, features a choir of voices) making the moment seem like a religious conversion, a beautific vision of sorts. Through the passing of this plane by him in flight, Jim is not only finally "seeing" God (which he wondered earlier in the film could even be done), God is actually waving at him. Jim shouts in ecstasy and leaps up and down exclaiming: "YEAH! P-51, CADILLAC OF THE SKIES!" as explosions shake the earth all around him. It may be Armageddon but Jim is in a state of grace.

It's as this point that the difference between the reality of war and the fantasy that Jim has engaged in for so long have become indiscernible. What is real and what is a hallucination? We don't know, but after four years in the camp, perhaps Jim is finally starting to "lose it." After all, it's hard enough for an adult mind to deal with the horrors of war. It only makes sense that a child's mind would eventually snap. The genius of Spielberg is that he puts the audience right in the mind of Jim with the subjective camerawork and operatic music. We know Jim is in danger up on that roof but we can't help but share in his elation. It is a sublime moment and a truly cinematic sequence.

After the attack, the Japanese move all the prisoners out of the camp and they make their long trek across the desert toward nowhere in particualr . Nobody knows where they are going. In fact, nobody even seems to care as long as they are getting away from the camp. Along the way Jim stops to throw his suitcase filled with the things that remind him of his former life into nearby water. This is, I would argue, a very significant moment. It is essentially Jim saying "goodbye" to his old life. For years he scampered to find things to connect him with his former self. Now he is completely abandioning it. Likewise, I think Spielberg (in the making of this film) is trying to shed the ways of his former "life." To put away childish things and become a new person, a grown man.

Eventually they end up in Nantao Stadium (in a very surreal scene) where it seems every item stolen by the Japanese has been placed, still in pristine condition. Jim notices what looks like his family's old limousine but he can't be sure. As he said to Dr. Rawlins after the attack on the camp: "I can't remember what my parents look like." He has been away from his old life for so long, he has forgotten it. In an interesting case of the child becoming the parent, Jim feeds water to Mrs. Victor (having been abandoned by her husband) as Max tells him that they're all moving up country because there's no food here. Jim tries to entice Mrs. Victor along but she resists saying "No, don't go. Better here." She wants to stay with her things. These trinkets, however worthless they may be to her now, remind her of her old life and so she is happy, even though she is dying. Jim tells her to pretend she's dead. They lie on the ground so everyone will go onward leaving them behind. The following morning, Mrs. Victor really is dead. As Jim looks at her lifeless body, his field of vision is suddenly filled with tremendous white light (revisiting Spielberg's light theme again). Unbeknownst to him, it is the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima thousands of miles away. Jim, however, thinks it is Mrs. Victor's soul leaving her body and going to heaven. When he later learns via a radio broadcast it was a bomb, he describes it as a "God taking a photograph." Again, like Indiana Jones before him, the atheist seems to have now become a believer.

Jim makes his way back to the labor camp alone at the very moment (somewhat unbelievably) that Basie has returned. Jim also encounters his Japanese friend, distraught that after much training he hasn't gotten the chance to fly either. The boy tries to give Jim a mango but his kindness is misinterpreted by Basie and his conhorts who shoot the boy dead. In anger, Jim yells at them: "He was my friend!" When Basie replies: "He was a Jap!" Jim yells back: "The war is over!" At that moment, Jim thinks that by witnessing the explosion of the atom bomb he has been given the power to bring back to life all the people who have died (as he did with the female patient earlier). In another rather heavy scene, Jim starts trying to resuscitate his friend repeating: "I can bring everyone back! Everyone! I can bring everyone! EVERYONE!" For a brief moment Jim sees his own face on the body of the boy he's trying to bring back emphasizing again that the "old" Jim is dead and he's never coming back.

When Basie pulls Jim off the body and tries to comfort him saying they can live together as Jim suggested earlier in the film, Jim wrestles free from his grasp and just stands staring at him. Jim no longer wants anything to do with Basie. He now seens him for what he really is: a selfish opportunist who cares for nothing or nobody other than himself. He's a man for whom survival is the only goal and Jim no longer sees anything in him to admire. As before, the tables are turned and the child has become more of a "man" than the grown-up. In a final gesture of his contempt, Jim rips off the dog tags Basie gave him and throws them away.

As "frigidaires" fall from the sky Jim rides around the camp on his bicycle laughing. He has now become so removed from reality that he doesn't even notice that the camp has American soliders in it. He rides right past them, not stopping until one steps directly in his path and grabs the handlebars of his bike. Jim looks up and whispers: "I surrender."

In the film's rather emotional final scene, a group of orphans are standing in a shelter waiting for their parents to come collect them. As a series of couples approach scanning the crowd looking for their own sons and daughters's Jim's parents walk right by Jim, not even recognizing him. Of course, Jim looks nothing like he did before. He looks like a veteran, a shell of his former self. Finally the mother catches sight of him out of the corner of her eye. She walks over to him and says: "Jamie?" Jim turns to look at her but recognition does not register on his face either. He doesn't remember her. Slowly, it starts to come back to him. He removes her hat and strokes her hair. He touches her lips, puts his hands on her arms (as E.T. did with Elliott at that film's climax) and slowly moves in for an embrace. He has found his parents again and although his mother and father are quite emotional over this reunion, Jim is merely tired; too numb to feel anything anymore. The final shot of Jim is a close-up of his eyes seen over his mother's shoulder. They are open and gazing upward before they slowly close. At last, after four years of hell, Jim can finally rest. We see images of people celebrating in the streets of Shanghai and the camera beings us back out into the harbor (where the film began) with the exact same song, "Suo Guan" playing on the soundtrack. Everything has come full circle, except that instead of seeing coffins with corpses in them floating in the water the camera rests on Jim's suitcase having traveled all the way there from where he first threw it away. In a way, though, it is a coffin with a corpse in it: the corpse of Jamie Graham. Jamie no longer exists. The older and wiser Jim Graham does. Jim is a boy no longer. Now he is a man. Demonstrating Spielberg's growing maturity, this finale is anything but a typically Spielbergian happy ending. There is a much darker, sadder tone to it; a melancholy undercurrent to what could have been a very sappy, saccharine reuionion scene. At best it is bittersweet. The family may be together, but it will never be the same family again.

In the end, it's a shame that Empire of the Sun (one of my personal favorite of Spielberg's films) was not received better because, after two so-called "failures" to make a successful serious film, it seemed to make Speilberg a little hesitant to try his hand at anything heavy for a while after that. Badly burned, Spielberg subsequently returned to more familiar territory: escapist fantasy entertainment.

TOMORROW: Keeping up with the Joneses


Anonymous said...


Good essay, but, I thought I should add just a few minor corrections.

The soldiers Jim finds waiting in the trench are actually Japanese, not Chinese.

Basie was a civilian sailor, not a soldier; he says this in his dialouge to Jim in the camp hospital. He talks about having gotten beaten up by a stoker back when he worked the legendary Shanghai to Frisco line--the original "slow boat to China". (And it's also presumably how he ended up stranded in Shanghai when WWII began.)

Finally, I don't mean to be snarky or anything, but, uhmmm....Don't kamikaze pilots, by definition, have nothing BUT maiden flights? (I'm reminded of that Monty Python bit about a Kamikaze being breifed for his 14th mission.)

An interesting bit of info about that scene: I saw Martin Scorcese speak at Brown University once, and he talked about it as an example of what he saw as Spielberg's skill with landscapes and exteriors. He described Spielberg telling him how they'd arrived at the location early and set up the opening shot in just a few minutes, after realizing the sun would come up in a certain way. He also described the pilots in that scene as "the last samuraii"--which is such a wonderful way of looking at it. I've since thought a great triple feature would be Kagemusha, Letters From Iwo Jima and Empire Of The Sun--three films about the setting sun.

Jonathan said...

Fantastic post. This is definitely Spielberg's most underrated or even most overlooked film. Bale gives the strongest performances from a child that I can think of and it's visually gorgeous.

I love it.

Megan said...

Another great essay. I am going to watch this movie again.

Anonymous said...

His last name is Graham not Grey.

David J. Loehr said...

Another interesting footnote is that this was very similar to Tom Stoppard's own experience as a boy in Singapore at roughly the same time. As I recall, when his family fled, he got out but never saw his father again. (His mother later remarried an Englishman named Stoppard.) So, of Stoppard's journeyman film work, this is maybe his most personal script.

cinebeats said...

I like your write-up, but I think I like the film more than you do.

In my not so humble opinion, Empire of the Sun is far and away Spielberg's greatest achievement as a filmmaker and I think it's a terrible shame that the film received such negative reviews on it's release. The film absolutely amazed me when I saw it in a theater during its second opening week. I fell in love with the movie and saw it two more time before it left theaters. At the last showing I was only 1 of 3 people in the audience.

I would go so far as to say that I think the film was too smart and too dark for critics at the time thanks to the original source material (I love Ballard’s work but I think it’s a shame that he didn’t seem to appreciate Spielberg’s adaptation) who expected simpler and lighter work from him. The negative reviews seemed to have encouraged Spielberg to fall back on his old clichés after Empire's release and play down smart ideas to satisfy his current audience. As an artist, I don't think he's ever fully recovered from Empire's negative reviews.

Empire combines the best things about Spielberg’s filmmaking in my opinion such is his ability to see the world through a child's eyes, his fascination with flight and the wide open wonders of the sky and last but not least, it looks at a historical event from a personal perspective. I don't think Spielberg has every used metaphor and allegory in a film so well. The way he captures the adult world through Jim’s eyes (which critics clearly totally missed at the time) is astonishing and the transformation of Jim from innocent child to damaged adult is hard to top. I’ve generally don’t care for child actors and it usually annoys me when they win awards, but Christian Bale’s performance was truly amazing. He should have taken home all kinds of awards for his role, but John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Joe Pantoliano also deliver some of their best work in this film too and that’s saying something since they’re all great actors.

I hope people who enjoy (or hate) his other war time films such as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan will give Empire of the Sun a fair shake because out of the three Spielberg films I just mentioned, Empire of the Sun is easily the best in my opinion and I really think it's the best film he’s made.

Many people mention how they enjoy watching particular Spielberg films to cheer them up or if they want a "feel good" experience and Empire is one of the films I've put on when I'm feeling a bit off and need a pick me up. I suppose the film appeals to my pessimistic nature, but I find the beauty of Jim's transformation in the film really uplifting.

Damian said...


Thank for the corrections. Thay have been changed. I left the maiden part in because I think that in the film the fact that it was their first time flying was more significant than the fact that they were Kamikaze pilots.


I like your write-up, but I think I like the film more than you do.

Well, not that it's a contest or anything, but I have little doubt that you're right, Kim. I love Empire of the Sun. I've always loved it and, as I say in my piece, I think it is a criminally under-appreciated work in Spielberg's canon, but I will admit that I do not consider it his best film. It's way up there certainly, but IMO his greatest cinematic achievement is soon to come (and you can bet I'll be writing a lengthy post about that one).

Thanks for your feedback. I hope you're enjoying the project so far. :)

cinebeats said...

You've given me another perspective on Spielberg's films that I can appreciate Damian even if I might not agree with you 100% on most of his films and I'm glad you like Empire since most critics seemed to enjoy writing negative reviews of it.

I did want to add that one reason why I like Empire so much (and why I think it's his best war time film) is the way in which he portrays the Japanese. They are not "cookie cutter" bad guys and Jim learns a lot about humanity from the so-called "enemy." That is really a rare thing in any kind of war time cinema and Spielberg really explores that angle well in Empire. It stands out because he contrasts it with the troubled relationship young Jim has with the Malkovich character who's American.

I could talk about this film a lot since it's a favorite, but I just wanted to mention another reason why I like it so much.

Jeffrey said...

"a fantastic sequence wherein Jamie stumbles upon a crashed airplane, climbs into the cockpit and pretends that he is engaged in air-to-air combat with the "enemy": namely, his glider which the wind whips and whirls around him in remarkably well-orchestrated manner (almost as if guided by an invisble hand). This is one of those scenes that tends to either turn people off to the conceit or engage their imagination and fully involve them in the world of the film "

This is one of my favorite moments in the film.

You'll recall that the visual technique used to bring us within Jim's play is the same one Spielberg used to simulate dogfights in his homegrown WWII epics - moving the camera across a stationary, grounded plane. Jim dreams of flight: 14 year-old Steve Spielberg made his friends and family share the dream.

It's a remarkable, incredibly generous moment: Spielberg is not only honoring the creativity and imagination of childhood, he's sharing *his* childhood joy in creating illusion - allowing us the tickle of awareness of technique. We're in the cockpit flying with Jim, but we're also outside, creating magic with Steve.

It's one of the purest fusions between artist, subject, and audience I've ever seen.

-Jeffrey Allen Rydell

Jeffrey said...

Also want to make mention of Jim's attempted resurrection of his fallen friend - just 5 years on from E.T., the magic no longer works and childhood is over.

It's definitely a moment where Spielberg is not only playing off his own work, but off his audience's perception of him based on that work. It's a shorthand, and it's brutally employed.

Just a devastating movie all round, with some of the flat-out spookiest, most resonant moments in Spielberg's career.

-Jeffrey Allen Rydell

P.S. Cinebeats Kim: Between your posts here and a quick toddle about your site, I've developed a little insta-crush on you. Perils of the web, I guess: buy the ticket, take the ride. Guess that cuts both ways, come to think of it...

Cinephile said...

Wow! Great post about one of my favorite spielberg films, and great, great insights and analysis here in the comments section, too. Cinebeats, your description of the film is lovely, and sums up so many of my feelings. When I wrote about Damian's fabulous project at my blog, I said Sugarland Express was S's most underrated film, posted it, then thought, "no, it's really Empire of The Sun."

Jeffrey, your observation about the E.T. scene and the one in Empire is really cool-- I love that whole "goodbye to childhood" thing. And Damian, I once again learn more great production info from your post-- I had completely forgotten Ben Stiller was in this film.

I guess I sound like Jim running across the roof, shouting at the planes-- "Windmills of My Mind! Cadillac of the film blogs!"-- but I am really thrilled to see such positive response to a film that deserves so much more attention than it's received.

Noel Vera said...

It helps to read Ballard, I think.

Lots of wonderful filmmaking in Empire of the Sun, and my favorite part might well be the sequence where Jim plays at aerial dogfight without once getting off the ground...but it's almost a hundred and eighty degree inversion of what Ballard's book was about. Jim didn't develop a moral sense, as in the movie; if anything, it's what someone says about Jim that's truest, that he'll never in spirit escape what happened to him during the war--that he'll always be an amoral brat, lost in dreams of flight, less interested in survival than in education (the real climax of the novel was the piles of Reader's Digest he plowed through), always willing to surrender to the next army to come to power.

That reunion was touching as Spielberg wrote it, but the parents in the novel were passive things, barely able to stand up; he never connected with them, never felt the need to, and probably never will. He was lost way back when the mother lost a grip on his hand in Shanghai.

If the film's interesting for me--and I admit, it's fascinating to watch--it's for the way Spielberg's sensibility clashes with Ballard's. It's a flip chill book. Not a little heartless. Actually, the ideal director for this might have been David Cronenberg.

I suppose my favorite Spielberg war movie would be 1941. If anything, I submit it has a coldhearted feel to it (pranks and farce and hijinks in the eve of the 2nd World War) that comes closer to what Ballard's all about than Empire ever was.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

I want to second the praise offered above. This has been a tremendously satisfying series overall. I particularly like this article on "Empire" -- it's one of my favorite Spielberg movies, and as you said, pretty clearly a transitional work between phases of his career, anchored in a child's viewpoint yet quite adult in its images and situations.

The only advice I'd offer is to not feel obligated to finish this series within August. The Iron Man aspect of "31 Days of Spielberg" might have been an initial attraction for readers, but the quality of the posts supersedes that. Take your time and polish each one till you get it exactly where you want it. If the project extends into September, I doubt anyone will hold it against you.

AR said...

Spielberg was an important filmmaker to me growing up, but I would have to say Empire of the Sun always left a deeper impression on me than even E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Arc. I haven't watched the film in 15 years or so, but reading this wonderful essay brought back lots of memories and makes me want to watch this film again.

Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading. I'll have to check out the rest of your entries!

cinebeats said...

Jeffrey -

Thanks for the nice words about cinebeats! Online crushes are okay by me as long as my husband doesn't find out. ;)

I hadn't thought of the connection between Jim's attempts to resurrect the dead Japanese soldier to E.T. until you mentioned it and I think it's a fascinating comparison. Its like Spielberg was finally growing and Empire reflected this change. Loosing your childhood innocence is painful and Empire shows that transformation into adulthood so well.

Noel -

I've always thought Ballard and critics who say that Spielberg didn't understand the original work sort of missed something. The book is absolutely very different, but I'm of the mind that adaptations are the work of another artist so I don't care much when major changes are made and Spielberg totally made Empire his own beast. With that said I tend to disagree with this statement:

That reunion was touching as Spielberg wrote it, but the parents in the novel were passive things, barely able to stand up; he never connected with them, never felt the need to, and probably never will. He was lost way back when the mother lost a grip on his hand in Shanghai.

I agree with Damian and I personally don't find the reunion Jim has with his parents all that touching at all and I think it carries with it the essence of Ballard's original work in some ways. Jim has changed greatly at the end of the film. He's clearly an adult now and the little boy who wanted to be reunited with his parents earlier is dead or you could say his childhood is dead, as well as his parents.

When his parents do arrive to claim Jim again they appear to him as sort of ghosts in the aftermath of the war torn orphanage. It's as if they've come to him in a dream. At face value it could be seen as a touching reunion between parents and child, but symbolically and metaphorically there's a lot going on at the end of the movie that taps into Ballard's original and harsher work in my opinion. Of course it still has Spielberg's touch, but I really think he was saying goodbye to childhood and all things childish - including the ties that bind us to our parents - by the time the credits rolled.

Damian said...

Thanks, Matt. I am falling a little behind here, so I may either have to extend my project or pick up the pace a little because I don't want to quality of the writing to suffer.

Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...

Oh, I thought the reunion in the film quite touching--that much worked for me.

And it's a truism, there'll be differences in adaptation, but the heart of Ballard's work, from this to Crash to The Crystal World to his short stories all is a chill, chill sensibility, absolutely no trace of sentiment at all. Even the survival instinct is secondary in his novels--the hero in Crystal World, for example, gets less and less interested in surviving and more and more interested in becoming a part of what's happening. Developing into a young adult,or developing a sense of morals (something I think you see in Spielberg's later works) or developing maturity of any kind is not a priority. Ballard's ideas of development are, shall we say, more surreal.

That said, I do find that the clash between Ballard and Spielberg is actually fascinating, one I don't think at all worked, but fascinating. Spielberg spending millions on something as foolhardy as this? By all means, and I value it as such. There's a place in cinema for strange experiments like this.

Noel Vera said...

Incidentally, I remember an interview where Ballard said he loved the movie. Do we have some kind of online record stating he felt otherwise?

cinebeats said...

Developing into a young adult, or developing a sense of morals (something I think you see in Spielberg's later works) or developing maturity of any kind is not a priority. Ballard's ideas of development are, shall we say, more surreal.

I've read a lot of Ballard myself and like you, I don't find any obvious sentimentality in his work, but in most of Ballard's books the characters in them often go through some kind of transformation. They are often forced to adapt to circumstances or the environments they find themselves in. Ballard is clearly interested in somewhat more surreal and existential ideas compared to what Spielberg presents literally in his film version of Empire, which he injects with his own sentimentality and highlights what moved him about the original book (flight as a metaphor for transcendence, child and adult relationships, etc.). But I think it can be argued (as I did above) that everything is not exactly what you see in Empire and I think Spielberg explored some of Ballard’s basic ideas well.

At face value someone could read the ending of the film as you did and find it very sentimental when Jim's parents arrive at the orphanage and all is suddenly right with the world again, but I don't personally read the ending like that myself. In other words, I think there is a surreal and transformative element to Spielberg’s version of Empire that worked for me and can be seen as somewhat representative of Ballard's original ideas.

As I clearly mentioned above though, Spielberg really made Empire his own beast and as I pointed out in the comments section in Damian's previous write-up of E.T., I'm often really turned off by the sentimentality and simplicity in Spielberg's work so I can easily understand how a film like Empire might not work for a lot people. Especially if they were expecting Spielberg to make an exact book to screen adaptation of Ballard's original work. But I also think lots of critics missed or gloss over the more subtle and surreal aspects of Spielberg's own film.

As for Ballard's own opinion, previous interviews I've read seemed to make pretty clear that he thought the film was too sentimental and sweet. He seems to have had a change of heart in recent years (as have many critics) but the film was universally rather disliked when it was first released. Half the critics seemed to think the film was too dark and the other half thought it was too light. I did a brief search online but I could only find this recent piece where I think it's pretty clear that Ballard is expressing he's had change of heart about the film recently. Do you have his follow-up book to Empire of the Sun on hand called The Kindness of Women? I read it back in the early 90s when it was first released but I don't own it and I'm pretty sure he expresses his reservations about the film adaptation in that book as well.

Noel Vera said...

I use to have a copy of Kindness of Women but it's been so long; I doubt if I remember much of it.

Juan said...

Good essay, I´m somewhat surprised that you left out the scene were Jim saves his life by saluting (and beying saluted back) by the Japanese pilots. That´s one of the strongest scenes in the movie, IMO.

Noel Vera said...

It's a strong shot, I agree, and quintessential Spielberg. Ballard might have had Jim take the plane apart in his mind into its various component shapes and colors, all in complete silence. If Spielberg shot the whole movie in a giant aquarium, maybe...

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