Empire of the Sun is a moving and epic coming-of-age story, that also marks the first foray into WW2 storytelling by director Steven Spielberg. Yet unlike his later ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Empire of the Sun shares more in common with his other 80’s movies like E.T. or even The Goonies. Christian Bale is the main protagonist, and is only a kid in this movie. It’s an awful lot to put on a young boys shoulders, but he shines as young British ‘Jamie’, and I can totally see how he’s become such a huge star. Even at such a young age, he had an extraordinary talent, and that mixed with Spielberg’s great track record with child actors makes for a skillfully acted and directed flick.
The movie starts with the introduction of young Jamie Graham, an upper class British boy obsessed with planes living in China with his parents in 1941. This marked a turbulent time for the Chinese population, and especially outsiders living there, with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai imminent. When the occupation finally begins, James is separated from his parents, and struggles to find food or shelter, until two American men come to his aid (played by Joe Pantoliano and John Malkovich). The three fight to survive until eventually being captured by the Japanese and put into refugee camps. From there, Jamie and Basie (Malkovich) are transferred to a labor camp and put to work. Jamie then has to use his wits and resourcefulness to keep Basie and himself alive during their long internment.
Part of why I love movies from this era, extending back to the 60’s and more with movies like yesterdays ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is the scope of them. Not only that, but they were made at a time where you couldn’t just put some screens up and fill in the blanks with CG extras or backdrops. Empire of the Sun has quite a few scenes with probably a thousand or more extras, and it’s pretty awesome. There’s just something cold about seeing a movie that relies too heavily on CG, and it takes you out of the emotional side of the movie. It’s a reminder that what you’re watching is in fact fake. I think CG should be used to benefit a movies story or characters, not to make the film-making process easier for those behind the scenes, but I’ll step off my soapbox now.
Christian Bale really shows that he’s got what it takes to be a star in ‘Empire of the Sun’. It’s also funny seeing the origins of some of the things he utilizes still to this day when acting, from being able to convey so many emotions with just one look, and the intense physicality he shows in many of his roles today. He’s been one of my favorite actors ever since ‘The Machinist’ or ‘American Psycho’ (I can’t remember which I saw first). The guy is going to be remembered for a long time, and Empire of the Sun is what kick-started what is sure to be an illustrious career.
The last thing I’ll talk about is Spielberg and his love for stories based in World War 2. I can definitely understand it, for one, as this was one of the most dramatic and turbulent times the world has ever seen. As far as I know, Empire of the Sun was his first story told in WW2, and I loved how he took some influence from his previous coming-of-age stories into this setting. Something must have clicked with him during the making of Empire, as he went on to do Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and producing the great ‘Band of Brothers’, along with many WW2 documentaries.
So that’s going to do it for Empire of the Sun. If you enjoy Spielberg’s movies (so, all of you), definitely check it out if you haven’t seen it. It’s one of his lesser known movies, at least compared with the classics in his renowned filmography. Empire of the Sun marks the birth of Spielberg’s passion for this time period, as well as the birth of an exciting new actor in Christian Bale.