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|Empire of the Sun
Steven Spielberg's 1987 epic is based on J.G. Ballard's powerful autobiographical novel, itself inspired by his Shanghai childhood and subsequent internment at Lunghua during the Second World War. Though it received mixed reviews and fared indifferently at the box office, Spielberg's adaptation is hypnotic, often mesmerizing cinema, the most inventive and challenging movie of his career.Christian Bale (now in his mid-twenties and recently seen getting axe-happy in AMERICAN PSYCHO) made his screen debut as Jim Graham (the "J.G." in J.G. Ballard), a pampered British boy living in Shanghai with his mother and wealthy businessman father.
"Spielberg's most mature and morally complex film"
Probably what first attracted Spielberg to Ballard's novel was sentences like these: "Jim had begun to dream of wars. At night the same silent films seemed to flicker against the wall of his bedroom in Amherst Avenue, and transformed his sleeping mind into a deserted newsreel theatre. Fragments of his dreams followed Jim around the city; in the foyers and departmen stores and hotels the images of Dunkirk and Tobruk, Barbarossa and the Rape of Nanking sprang loose from his crowded head."
This excerpt is typical of Ballard's surreal, almost hallucinatory prose, and it demonstrates the difficulty inherent in translating his oneiric narrative into effective cinema. How do you dramatize onscreen a story entirely from the perspective of a child with a hyperactive imagination? Without making the whole experience of war look like one big hallucination? Without making the child himself seem psychotic?
Well, Spielberg doesn't worry about any of that. He just lets his visual imagination run wild, lets the story become more and more surreal, bizarre, fantastic, and removed from "reality" and "naturalism." Until finally we realize that combat IS a surreal experience, war DOES feel like a hallucination, a collective psychosis, and the antitheses of daydream and nightmare, realism and surrealism, cannot truly be distinguished. Particularly when the main character is only 12 years old.
Why did so many critics get upset about the way Spielberg “sentimentalized” war in EMPIRE, yet had nothing but praise for SCHINDLER’S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? Both of those films contained more sloppy sentimentality than this, Spielberg’s earlier (and better) examination of World War II and its ramifications. The same people who (wrongly) chastised Spielberg for making war seem “fun” in EMPIRE had no problem with the “fun” action sequences that open and close SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, despite the fact they turn combat into an exhilarating video game (dodge those bullets, folks! duck that explosion!). Even worse is the climax of SCHINDLER’S LIST (the bathetic “I could have done more” speech: historically inaccurate, a distortion of the real Oskar Schindler’s character, and publicly criticized by the author of the book, Thomas Keneally). For that matter, why did so many EMPIRE bashers admire TITANIC, which turns the whole massive tragedy into a convenient backdrop for a cheesy Harlequin romance plot, replete with bonehead dialogue and loads of mindless gunplay?
What EMPIRE’s detractors forget is that the movie is told entirely from the perspective of a cerebral, precocious, but also dreamy, fantasy-prone child. JIM GRAHAM DOES NOT FULLY UNDERSTAND WHAT IS HAPPENING AROUND HIM. Or, put another way, he processes the information almost as a painter or artist would: in terms of loud noises (B-51s, marching regiments, voices in the darkness), vivid images and brilliant primary colors (an exploding Japanese aircraft, a vast billboard of GONE WITH THE WIND, autumn leaves swirling in a swimming pool, the white light of an atom bomb), everything pure sensation. EMPIRE's detractors seem to want the 12-year-old protagonist to process information as a 40-year-old-man would (one possessing middle-of-the-road, middlebrow liberal sympathies). What they deride as emotional immaturity on Spielberg's part is really emotional accuracy.
Jim was already prone to daydreaming before all havoc broke loose, and his childish imagination, as we soon see, is both a blessing and a curse after the invasion of Shanghai. A blessing because it initially shields him from the horror of what is happening. A curse because eventually the horrible truth breaks through his defenses, and he’s too smart and sensitive a child not to be damaged. This is why David Thomson described EMPIRE OF THE SUN as the scariest cinematic depiction of the warping of childhood innocence by experience.
Spielberg’s child-like (not childish) approach is even more appropriate once you know something about the author, J.G. Ballard. Ballard is an acclaimed science fiction writer, but what’s fascinating about his science fiction is that it’s hardly fiction. The recurring motifs of his books—drained swimming pools, humid wildernesses, gleaming aircraft, rotting corpses—seem directly inspired by his childhood in wartime. Yet there is an attraction, an exhilaration latent in Ballard’s descriptions. Ballard has said his experience in a prison camp wasn’t entirely negative, he wasn’t unhappy. Yet Spielberg was chastised for depicting his child hero as frequently quite happy! Surely that was the point. The adult characters (played by John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and others) seem quite unhappy, often deeply miserable and despairing. It’s only Jim—PRECISELY BECAUSE HE IS STILL A CHILD—who’s often upbeat and cheerful.
When the Japanese invade Shanghai, Jim flees with his parents, but in the midst of a huge rushing crowd, he drops his toy airplane and drops his mother's hand to pick it up. When he rises to his feet, she is gone. Spielberg draws an extraordinary reaction from Bale here, as fear mounts into panic, and panic dissolves into tearful hysteria. Bale's emotional reaction inadvertently demonstrates how false and stagey most child acting really is.
Jim returns to his house, now silent, empty, devoid of life. The atmosphere of these scenes is difficult to describe, so I'll quote from Ballard again, since Spielberg is so faithful to his source's imagery: "Time had stopped in Amherst Avenue, as motionless as the wall of dust that hung across the rooms, briefly folding around Jim when he walked through the deserted house."
Spielberg manages to suggest the same melancholy, mournful desolation that Ballard does, sometimes even surpassing his source. The director selects the most haunting images from the book, and, if anything, obsesses upon them even more fully than Ballard did.
Images of what? Of footprints in the dust of a bedroom floor, gone with the wind from an open window. A drained swimming pool filled with falling autumn leaves. A silent house littered with scattered dishes and toppled furniture: the home as museum; or Shanghai as modern Pompeii.
Fleeing his abandoned house, Jim is discovered by a pair of American scavengers (John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano), and "Basie" (Malkovich) quickly becomes his friend and confidante after all three are captured by the Japanese and put into a camp. This is where the movie starts to miss the mark, because Spielberg fails to give the camp the proper horror or resonance. Ballard has said that he was not unhappy in the camp, but Spielberg makes it look like a playground or daycamp for the kids. It just doesn't seem like a bad place to be (at first).
Spielberg regains his momentum in the third act, in the closing scenes of the camp and after the release of the prisoners, who spend the final act of the film wandering like Moses in the wilderness. From this point on, we get a series of surreal images, all beguiling in the conflicting emotions they bring to the surface. Spielberg was wrongly criticized for superficiality here, but this is not a fair assessment. (It's only the prison camp scenes that ring false and silly.)
Christian Bale's depiction of Jim Graham was ignored by most reviewers, but it was acclaimed by the best: Pauline Kael, David Denby, David Thomson, and especially Andrew Sarris, who called it the best performance by a child actor he'd ever seen. This sounds like hyperbole, but it's not: Sarris is merely accurate.
In retrospect, I'm bewildered by the acclaim heaped upon Bale's overexposed contemporary Leonardo DiCaprio, when it's perfectly obvious that what Bale does here (at age 12 or 13) far surpasses anything DiCaprio is capable of projecting. The great thing about Bale's acting in EMPIRE is that he has an invisible technique: he doesn't "perform" in the stagey, artificial manner deployed by most child thesps.This flawed but fascinating movie is in many ways Spielberg's most personal testament. More unsettling in its implications than Schindler's List, it's also more inventive and more daring than Saving Private Ryan. A triumph of Hollywood grandeur.
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originally posted: 05/31/00 05:33:01