Thursday, February 13, 2014

Empire of the Sun - Movie Review

If you haven’t heard of this movie, don’t feel bad. Part of my affection for it may be the fact that it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s little-known masterpieces, hiding in the dusty corners of his 50-film history. It is based on J.G. Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun, a semiautobiographical story of his childhood in China. Ballard’s stand-in is Jamie, a spoiled young Brit living in the wealthy International Settlement, the only sector of Shanghai which the Japanese have not occupied. When, after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invade, Jamie and his parents are separated, and he is thrown into a world for which he is totally unprepared. For him, this is the real start of World War II.

I think Empire of the Sun is a movie that splits opinions. A lot depends on expectations. It might style itself as a historical epic, or a commentary on war or race or other abstractions, but it’s really about a little boy. It is not plot-driven but character-driven, like Lawrence of Arabia, it is a very long, slow film in which the plot is really the hero. If one cannot empathize with Christian Bale’s Jamie Graham, the entire movie falls apart.

I’ve never had trouble with that. Jamie is, to me, a fascinating character. He is spirited and imaginative, with a comic, conceited naivety that only children with posh English accents can achieve. Thirteen-year-old Christian Bale is extraordinary, throwing his entire heart into the character and delivering one of the greatest child performances of all time.

Wealthy Jamie is a product of his environment, and for a while it seems like he is nothing but a clichéd brat, rudely snubbing his Chinese au pair and speaking with oblivious insouciance about “the war.” Yet while he’s grown up in the stifling confines of arrogant British colonialism, he still dreams of the sky. “Mother, if God is above us, does that mean up, like flying?” he asks, gazing dreamily at the model airplanes hanging from his bedroom ceiling. (As an aside, this is precisely what my brother does to stall bedtime—talk theology.)  His agnostic mother absently mutters, “I don’t know. I don’t know about God.” These planes connect Jamie to something outside and above the sphere of his sheltered home, and are a significant symbol throughout the film.

Steven Spielberg loves planes. They feature in Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan as representations of, respectively, the good life and deliverance. Planes aren’t Spielberg’s only fetish—he has a penchant for father-child relationships—with such a dynamic appearing in many of his films. (It can be seen in Catch, Ryan, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, Crystal Skull, Hook, Encounters, and Jurassic Park I and II in more or less literal formats.) Other themes are dysfunctional or absent families, coming-of-age stories, boy protagonists, World War II, and sentimental conclusions. Empire is no different, but it combines these various factors into a mature, dark script which, in many ways, is in denial of Spielberg’s own tendencies.

Bale, Spielberg, and Malkovich
This denial not immediately apparent. We have a boy protagonist with an absent family in World War II. He loves airplanes. He has to grow up. Sounds like a perfect example of Spielberg at his most sappy, but he holds back, instead examining Jamie’s childhood from behind a cold, unfeeling camera. Spielberg says of the movie: “It’s really about the death of innocence, the death of one’s childhood, which is kind of the opposite of stuff I usually do. I usually celebrate childhood.”

When Jamie is (deservedly) slapped by his long-suffering nanny, we first begin realize that this innocence is being stripped away. Yet Jamie perseveres in immaturity. He lives for a long time in his empty house, squandering food and breaking the rules while his parents are away. Throughout the film, he will continue to seek out such shelters—such centers of gravity from which he can orbit safely. Emotionally, he does the same, seeking out the constancy of a father, the comfort of a mother, and the charm of a hero. The last of these he finds in Basie (John Malkovich), a sly, savvy American who evinces the darker side of capitalism. When Basie hears Jamie’s name he pauses. “Jim,” he declares. “A new name for a new life.”

Todd Alcott points out that Jim is quick to identify and appease authority, in the form of Basie (and later Japanese and American soldiers). Early on, Jim senses that Basie is a survivor, and does everything he can to make himself of value to him, offering the chance to loot the mansions of Amherst Avenue. This leads to their capture by the Japanese, and the start of the third act of the film at the Soochow Internment Camp.

In the movie, Jim is in two prisons. The second is a camp; the first is a mansion. In both he searches the skies for meaning, in both his child-like awe is his escape—from, in turn, the shallowness of Amherst Avenue and the brutality of Soochow. Jim’s affinity for planes almost amounts to a religion. “Angels on our shoulders,” Miller calls them in Saving Private Ryan. To Jim they offer a transcendent joy which nothing and no one else in his life can provide. (I must comment that John Williams’s sublime score highlights this joy perfectly.) J.G. Ballard commented, “Jim falls in love with these beautiful planes. His imagination is constantly reaching out to anything that will offer him hope. And I thought much of the same sort of thing myself, during the war.”

The other characters simply can’t understand Jim. Jeffrey Overstreet observes that Jim “seems to belong to a different kingdom, pledging allegiance to different powers than those around him.” The others all have their motivations. Basie, the survivor, the warped, perverse Indiana Jones-like hero, has but one lesson to teach, “People will do anything for a potato.” Mr. and Mrs. Victor are distant, an exhausted shell of a family. Rawlins, the English doctor (Nigel Havers), is the kindest person in the camp, but bound to “us and them” thinking. “Remember,” he tells Jim. “We’re British.”

“Yes,” Jim replies slowly. “I’ve never been there.”

The Japanese camp commander, Nagata, has a straightforward worldview. He separates humanity into categories. He simply cannot fathom Jim, and he can’t understand why the boy’s reaching for hope touches his heart. He has a definition of how the English behave—prideful, patriotic defiance—he has a definition of how the Americans behave—cocky, self-interested toadying, but Jim is neither of those things.

None of them can understand Jim’s angels—his ability to put aside all thoughts of patriotism or self-interest to pursue wonder. “Stop thinking so much.” “Difficult boy.” “Didn’t I teach you anything?” Spielberg’s love of wonder is apparent, but it does not lapse into saccharine sentimentality—he is consciously stepping away from simple, comfortable answers. In the end, Jim must decide which path he wants to take. Undoubtedly the isolationist path, in which survival is god, is the safest. But again, we see Spielberg taking a lifestyle which he would formerly have glorified in a loner hero like Indiana Jones, and asking the question, “Yes, it’s glamorous, but is this illusion worth the price?” James Bond doesn’t have much of a social life, after all.

Returning to John Williams, I believe this may be my favorite of his scores. His emphasis on the choral selections emphasizes the divine element to Jim’s hope. Suo Gan, the Welsh lullaby Jim sings (a piercingly sad song I cannot hear without being shaken to the core) is translated, “Sleep child mine, there’s nothing here. While in slumber at my breast, angels smiling, have no fear, holy angels guard your rest.”

Jim sings it twice in the film, in two very different settings. This form of parallelism is common. The film is bookended by shots of coffins (literal and metaphorical) floating on the water. Jamie rides his bike through his abandoned homes. Basie wears the same sort of glasses as the hero on the cover of Jamie’s comics. Dr. Rawlins rubs his lip just like Mr. Graham. A Chinese boy who chases Jamie through the streets of Shanghai is wearing a leather jacket similar to the one Jim will wear in Soochow.

But while things may repeat themselves, they are never the same. Jim cannot go back to his Eden at Amherst Avenue, with all its flaws and perfections—he can’t even return to his boyishly innovative adventures at Soochow. Childhood has been washed away in a waterlogged suitcase, along with his illusions about American heroes.

Yet the cycle is broken. Jim realizes that to make survival the ultimate good comes at the cost of such camaraderie as he feels with his Japanese friend. In the end, he decides that to sacrifice that true friendship for comforting promises of material stability is to turn to shallow lies. People collapse dying among the chandeliers and the fancy cars. Basie says, “Come on, Jim, I’ll take you back to your dad, you can retire, we’ll fill up the pool, eat three meals a day.” Jim rejects Basie not only for the mean coward he is, but all that he stands for. Jim has become his own man.

What of the Spielbergian sentimental ending? It isn’t there. While the film has many flights of fancy, given that we see the world as a young boy does, by the end we have crashed to earth like a parachutist from the war-torn heavens. Near the beginning of the film Jamie is looking through glass at a tumultuous, bloody world—by the end Jim is standing, exhausted, in a conservatory full of broken windows, and we can see in his eyes that there is no going back.

But to try and drench the entire story in meaning is going too far. Any ideology that tries to fit onto it will slip and slide, another example of Spielberg's unusually complex storytelling. These things are complicated, and Empire is, essentially, a simple, linear story. 

Like I said, it won't appeal to everyone. All the same, I would point out that it does not relinquish its meaning easily—it’s a wonderful film which requires the audience to engage as well as simply watch. Also, it’s Spielberg. It’s a visual masterpiece. In my opinion it’s Spielberg’s best. So there. And Christian Bale. My gosh, Christian Bale is amazing. 

5/5 stars.

Hannah Long

HEY! It's a young Ben Stiller. He and Paul McGann have brief parts as
members of Basie's gang.


  1. I remember before I didn't read your article on this because I hadn't yet watched Empire of the Sun, and I was afraid of spoilers. One word for it--Wowza. Just wow. I put this on my Christmas list. I'm dying to see it again. Truly a masterpiece.

    1. YAY! I'm not the only person on the planet that liked this movie. Glad you liked it.


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