Empire of the Sun
Many of the movie fans I’ve met throughout my life attribute their love of film to Mr. Spielberg. The…ahem…older movie fans usually bring up the magic of E.T., the intensity of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or the adventure of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The man has made some of the greatest movies of all time and it’s easy to find inspiration in just about every film he makes. I also give credit to the Bearded One for inspiring my love of film, but the movie that had the biggest impact on me was not a summer blockbuster or an Oscar winner, but a film that has slipped through the cracks of the ever impressive Spielberg resume: EMPIRE OF THE SUN.
The film follows the story of Jim (Christian Bale, in his debut performance) as he becomes imprisoned in a Japanese war camp during WWII. Jim is a spoiled, rich, British kid whose parents are working in Japan during the war. When the war kicks off, there’s a mass evacuation and Jim gets separated from his parents. Jim is helped in this endeavor by the always great John Malkovich (Basie), who takes him in (kind of) and teaches him some hard life lessons. Jim soon realizes he’s being taken advantage of, but that realization is part of his growth. When the movie is finished, try to remember that the boy you see at the end of the movie was the same boy you saw in the beginning. The transformation is remarkable and it’s told so well, you barely even realize it. This is where I realized Christian Bale was a remarkable actor and it’s sad that most people didn’t realize that until they saw BATMAN BEGINS about two decades later.
The film is loosely based off the real life events of the recently deceased J.G. Ballard. I wonder if he was tempted to skew the plight of Jim in any way. The remarkable thing about the film is that there is no drastic change in Jim. We don’t see him curl up in a corner and cry for 30 minutes because he lost his family. Likewise, we don’t see him become Superman and save the world. There’s always a delicate balance as Spielberg lets the camera do the storytelling and the audience is treated with enjoyment of watching young Jim become a man. He literally goes from a character we don’t really like to a character we’re cheering for in about two hours.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN is one of my all time favorite films. I remember watching it for the first time as an 11 year-old boy and being entranced with it. The themes and messages were lost on me, but I knew I was watching something special. When I revisited it again many years later, I was amazed that the movie was just as powerful almost 20 years later. If you haven’t given the film a chance, then I highly recommend going back and letting Mr. Spielberg impress you yet again.