Empire of the Sun (1987)

2015 #44
Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Empire of the SunSteven Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel stars a 13-year-old Christian Bale as Jim, the son of British ex-pats in China when the Japanese invade during World War II. Separated from his family as they try to flee, Jim encounters born survivor Basie (John Malkovich) and, when they wind up in an internment camp for the rest of the war, a cross-section of the rest of the left-behind. To Jim, a somewhat naïve but capable, confident and determined endurer, the whole thing is a big adventure; we can see the truth, though: that it’s a grim slog of life and death, and most succumb to the latter. The reality of the situation gets to Jim in the end, too… but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

At two-and-a-half hours and with a plot that spans a good chunk of the war, Spielberg crafted a certifiable epic here — not his first, and most certainly not his last. Even then, swathes of material reportedly ended up on the cutting room floor, with top-billed cast members like Miranda Richardson reduced to extended cameos. Paul McGann got an early taster of how he’d be treated on Alien³ a few years later: his part is reduced to literally a single shot.

Nonetheless, some still consider the film to be overlong. It’s a criticism not without basis, even if the material included — and the intrigue of what was lost — remains fruitful. In truth, perhaps the scope and scale of the story leave it better suited to a TV miniseries, where the distinct sections of the narrative (life before the invasion; Jim alone after occupation; life in the internment camp; the free-for-all at the end of the war) could be parcelled off into individual episodes, rather than having to coexist in a single sitting.

Born survivorsAs it stands, the film is a fascinating insight into a less-often-covered aspect of the war. Even in small roles, the quality cast keep it watchable and relatable. Bale’s performance comes in just the right side of annoying — quite an achievement for a character who seems inherently brattish and prone to irritate.

On balance, Empire of the Sun isn’t among Spielberg’s finest achievements. There’s an element of je ne sais quoi in trying to work out why that’s the case — it’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it, but at no point does it fully come together in the way his greatest movies do. Still, my theory that there’s no such thing as a bad Spielberg movie is upheld.

4 out of 5

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