Rental Corner: “Empire” is crimminally underrated
Even after a few hours after watching “Empire of the Sun,” I feel its beginning to haunt me. Images of Steven Spielberg’s 1987 war drama are floating in my mind from the attack on Shanghai to the scenes in the prisoner’s camp with young Jim struggling to keep his youth from slipping to the harshness of the war and those around them. How can one film already make such an impact on me you ask? Well, you would be surprised.
Based on J. G. Ballard’s semi autobiography novel of the same name, James Graham, a young upper class school boy played by Christian Bale (yes, that Christian Bale) becomes literally lost in a sea of Japan’s battle to take over Shanghai International Settlement and eventually witnesses the horror of war that slowly diminishes his fantasy of it. His investment in airplanes keeps him trudging on and his fond view of pilots that guides his view through a depressing and episodic journey.
Most notable is a scene after the attack where he’s running around “surrendering” to Japanese troops who just shrug him off or see it as a joke. This is reality. Not a fantasy anymore. The streets that were filled with astounding hotels and amazing sights is close to rubble and being overcome by troops and urchins of the streets that try to take advantage of his possessions.
Not long after, he befriends an American Solider name Basie (John Malkovich) who looks like an aviator that the kid has dreamed of but during the film, we slowly see his true colors. Even the audience is duped by his “Artful Dodger” like nature as he tries to sell the kid’s teeth at one point and nearly abandons him as they are no good. The expectations are played around a lot as we don’t know if we should sympathize or hate him. In the end, we are drawn to our own conclusion as the stereotypical war image we see of him earlier is slowly stripped away to nothing more but an empty shell that has some kindness but not enough to deem him a hero.
Even pushed further is the depiction of the Japanese soldiers that hold Jim and a bunch of British and American refuges captive in a prison camp who at times respects some honor Jim responds back with and other times either test his faith or simply view him as a simple bystander. A perfect example is a moment when the general is destroy some of the camp in distraught over an attack on their harbor and is about to destroy the windows to the hospitals. As the doctor tries to prevent it, Jim instead smashes two of them and the general ceases the raid. Why does he do this? Does this mean he thinks Jim has some respect for him? Or was it just the thought of another American doing his work enough to please him? This is mirrored later when he beats Basie for a bar of stolen soap that Jim gave him and the kid tries to do the same thing but instead is fallen to a deaf ear. Moments like this really play with the viewer’s expectation and surrounding of the world. Is this all good faith or is it just action that means little or nothing?
Empire of the Sun is a beautifully filmed feature that I can’t do justice to. Even many have noticed the dream-like quality that carries out as Jim goes through the harsh moments while holding to every bit of innocence. This is brought further when Jim wonders if life is a dream by God or is it the other way around. The curiosity of a child that is even seen slowly eroded further when he sees the true horror of war. I don’t want to give anything too much away but by the end, you really start to feel the same amount of trauma creep into you that he gets.
The only problems I have is the theoretical aspect with Empire. Jim’s constant asking on the existence of God gets a bit redundant and is never given a good payoff. I curiously asked the significance until a certain key scene near the end when he questions it again that has some relevance but moments like that serve either little payoff or none at all.
Also is the transition from its dynamic moments to the light-hearted affairs midway. After much powerful imagery, when we take a five-year jump, it feels oddly uneven for a short bit as we see Jim’s established trading network and relationship with the captives. It’s not a bad scene but it nearly took me out of the movie for a moment for its sheer whimsy. After a long-range of powerful scenes in the tarnished streets and seeing people in reserves close to death, this is what we get. But after that, the film slowly trudges back its to roots that were placed in the beginning so you could argue that it was showing Jim in his prime before the negativity hits him again, but it felt a little off to me.
Even after that, the stuff that comes is nearly equally powerful to what we got earlier. There’s a moment when Jim watches a ceremony take place with a couple of Japanese aviators that causes him to break down and salute them. They look at him with curiosity but not enough to look back and return the honor or even cease his amazement. Let me tell you, not since E.T. have I shed a tear at a moment like this that captures the overall image of the film. In fact, the whole rest of Empire holds up really well and I never felt this emotionally attached to a Spielberg film in a long time or even cried more than once at it.
I really wish more people would check this one out and thanks to its Blu-Ray release, it looks marvelous in HD. This is up there with the Hudsucker Proxy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall as the kind of movie that deserves to be seen a huge screen. Its gripping, powerful, epic and showcases the director’s own view of the war and the tragedy it brings. It’s a coming of age story about the innocence of one boy and its struggle to hold on to it even he knows at some point, it has to be given up. And even as I write this, I’m fortunate to say a lot of it will haunt me to remind how much of our childhood doesn’t stay with us for long.