After the escapist fantasy and heated controversy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg ventured into the realm of weighty significance with his subsequent two films, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. But while The Color Purple was a commercial success, Empire of the Sun performed poorly at the box office, at least in comparison with Spielberg's earlier films, and garnered mixed critical notices. Perhaps Empire of the Sun failed to find an audience because it was a more somber return to the era that Spielberg previously escaped to for comic thrills in 1941 and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and some critics judged the film as being another example of Spielberg toning down the harsher, more adult aspects of a serious novel. But nearly 20 years after its release, Empire of the Sun can now be seen as an intriguing combination of Spielberg's two sides: the earlier childlike, escapist showman and the later, more mature director. As such, the film represents a coming of age for the filmmaker as well as the film's young protagonist.
Based on a novel by J. G. Ballard, which was inspired by the writer's childhood experiences in World War II, Empire of the Sun is set in 1941 and focuses on Jim Graham (Christian Bale), an English boy living with his wealthy parents in Shanghai. When the Japanese invade, Jim is separated from his mother and father (Emily Richard and Rupert Frazer), and ends up living alone in his abandoned house and wandering the streets of Shanghai. He soon falls in with Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), two Americans hiding out in Shanghai and bartering goods to survive. Eventually, all three of them are captured by the Japanese and end up in an internment camp, where they will remain for a number of years. While Basie and his American sidekicks plan an escape, and the British prisoners endure their plight with calm dignity, Jim throws himself enthusiastically into his new life, treating the camp and the people in it as a substitute for his lost home and absent family.
Although David Lean was apparently going to direct the film, Spielberg eventually inherited the project and made it uniquely his own. While Spielberg shares Lean's epic sense of grandeur, Empire of the Sun is pure Spielberg and a perfect match of director and material, focusing as it does on a child separated from his family, whose suburban existence is turned upside down by a mysterious outside force. But unlike previous Spielberg films, this is less a celebration of the wonders of childhood and more a lament for the loss of a child's innocence. Jim is a boy who doesn't want to grow up, because to do so would mean having to acknowledge the terrible things that have happened to him, as well as forcing him to consider the childhood that he has lost. Empire of the Sun is a rare Spielberg film (at least up to this point in his career) that doesn't try to reassure its audience or make everything clear-cut. The film even features an ambiguous conclusion that doesn't feel like an incongruous upbeat ending that jars with the rest of the film (as some of the closing scenes to Spielberg's recent films—as accomplished as the films are—have done).
While screenwriter Tom Stoppard supplies a literate script, it's Spielberg's peerless command of film technique that drives the film, with the director crafting a number of sequences that function as impressive examples of pure visual storytelling. There are the series of virtually wordless shots that open the film, which swiftly establish the time, the place, and the principal character. After a brief piece of introductory text and narration, one of the first things we see is an overhead shot of coffins floating in the water, which a boat ploughs through and pushes aside (incidentally, this, along with the sequences of people desperately fleeing Shanghai, anticipate both the dead bodies floating downstream and the throng of displaced citizens in Spielberg's War of the Worlds). We then see a close-up of a Japanese flag flapping violently in the wind, behind which is revealed Shanghai, a shot that anticipates the subsequent developments in the film.
And toward the end—in what is perhaps the film's most well known sequence—American planes strafe and bomb the Japanese runway next to the internment camp. As they attack, Jim stands on the roof of a building and watches transfixed, like an excitable viewer seeing a thrilling action sequence, and the distinction between Jim's romantic view of war as a movie and the harsh reality of the situation is blurred. This is a child's eye view of conflict, a war game with life-sized planes and a prison camp that's treated more like a playground. Sequences like this also make Empire of the Sun one of Spielberg's most surreal films. Earlier in the film, a group of British partygoers in fancy dress (including Jim and his parents), are shown driving through the crowds of poverty-stricken citizens. Looking like strays from a Fellini film, these bewildered Brits maintain a characteristic—but patently absurd—stiff upper lip in the face of a clear and impending calamity. And later, after leaving the internment camp and traveling across country, Jim and some other prisoners arrive in a huge stadium in the middle of a barren landscape, and find the arena full of abandoned cars, ornaments, and furniture—a bizarre Aladdin's cave that has everything (mostly luxuries and possessions that the wealthy Brits used to take for granted) except the food they need.
Empire of the Sun is not as graphic as the hellish worlds of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, but Spielberg doesn't sugarcoat the horrors of war. He shoots much of the film from Jim's point of view, and shows us not only what Jim sees, but also how he sees it. Although Jim's interpretation of his experiences resembles a romanticized, PG-rated war movie (where much of the violence is implied rather than shown), it's still a shocking and unsettling view of events. The moment when Jim returns to his empty home after the invasion of Shanghai (another virtuoso, mostly dialogue-free sequence), he enters his mother's bedroom and sees a bare footprint in some talcum powder that covers the floor. For a moment, Jim is happy to see this reminder of his mother, but he is quickly shaken from his reverie when he notices other footprints and violent swipe marks on the floor, which hint at signs of a struggle. And later, when Basie is violently beaten by the Japanese on two occasions, both times we cut to Jim's face watching the brutality before him. In both instances, we get a vivid sense of the appalling violence being meted out to others, and its effect on Jim.
While Jim may be a surrogate for Ballard, he's also a substitute for Spielberg. Both Jim and Spielberg (at the time of this film) can be seen as talented and privileged young men (combining childhood naiveté and adult savvy) who have found themselves in the big bad world of adults, and who have coped by retreating into their vivid imaginations and created idealized versions of their childhood experiences. But by the end of the film, Jim's blinders are torn away, and he will never be the same again. And just as Jim can never return to his more innocent childhood self, Spielberg—for better or worse—can never entirely go back to the lighter, more innocent and entertaining pleasures of Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ultimately, Empire of the Sun is one of the bleakest films that Spielberg has made about childhood (or more accurately, the transition from being a carefree child to a responsible adult), and as such is a key film in the growth and development of his career.