Empire of the Sun marks Spielberg’s departure from the theme of childhood and innocence and is his first step into more adult territory with films such as Schindler’s List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan. It’s a film which shows just how well Spielberg can handle the theme of war and loss, something which he tried to address before but with a more comedic approach with the flop 1941 (1979).
Empire of the Sun is certainly one of Spielberg’s more forgotten films from the 80s, and is often overlooked in favour of bigger hits like the Indiana Jones Trilogy and E.T. However it’s an undeniable classic which deserves far more attention and praise from critics. And more importantly, it shows us what Spielberg is capable of when given the right material, he does have it in him to be a mature film-maker.
Based on J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, the film follows the life of a boy, James Graham (Christian Bale, giving one of his best ever performances), whose privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a captured Chinese airfield. Jim is suddenly faced with an almost impossible task, he must become an adult in order to face the harsh world that surrounds him.
Like A.I. and E.T. this Spielberg film struck a chord with me by presenting another child who is forced to become an outsider and grow up far too quickly, something that I have encountered in my own childhood, what with the passing of my father at the age of 11 and suddenly finding myself the oldest of 5 children. Spielberg captures this feeling of helplessness perfectly in Empire of the Sun, a film which I watched one evening on a school-night and stayed up far past my bedtime to see whether Jim would be reunited with his parents. Part of me wanted him to be reunited with his mother and father but part of me wanted him to continue his life of independence.
Spielberg successfully captures how large the world is to a child, with big grand set pieces from crowded sprawling streets of Shanghai to the large endless airstrips where the aviation obsessed Jim finds himself encountering next to the confinement camp. Unlike E.T. where the world of the child was shown to be limited to one small town, and shots were often kept to waist level, Spielberg makes Empire of the Sun his epic, adapting an almost David Lean approach to filmmaking. Spielberg finally brings our attention to just how big and scary the world can be, especially to a child. There is no beating around the bush here, and at a time of war it’s all a question of surviving at any cost.
What marks Empire of the Sun as Spielberg’s departure from childhood optimism is how it takes on a pessimistic tone, Jim rejects childhood, religious belief and his dependence on an adult role model. He becomes his own parent and comes to his own conclusions about how the world works. He tries his hand at playing God, and tries to resuscitate a Japanese pilot, but he fails. This is marks a big step for Spielberg, because he doesn’t sugar coat the fact that in the real world, we are just helpless creatures who have no control over life or death.
The final shot of Jim’s suitcase floating in the river after he has thrown it away and has finally been reunited with his parents, sums up everything about this film’s message. Sometimes to become a more developed person and to grow up we have to let go of the baggage that is weighing us down. We have to say goodbye to childish hopes and dreams, and we have to wake up to the reality of the world that surrounds us. It’s hard message to swallow, but Spielberg helps us digest it without cramming it down our throats. Empire of the Sun, is the perfect film to show your teenager child who is transgressing from child to young adult as in my personal opinion no other film has managed to successfully capture that feeling like Empire of the Sun.