Film #34 in the World War II Marathon is the first entry from Steven Spielberg, but I have a feeling it won’t be the last!
Written By: Menno Meyjes & Tom Stoppard
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
World War II and Steven Spielberg go together like peanut butter and jelly. He is one of a handful of directors who are fascinated with the war to the point that they return to it time and again. Spielberg has made three films dealing with World War II, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and the film in question for this review, Empire Of The Sun. The first two are well known, highly regarded and are films that people closely associate with the name Steven Spielberg. The same can not be said about Empire Of The Sun, Spielberg’s first ever film dealing with the war he loves to explore. Empire Of The Sun isn’t well known nor is it highly regarded by the masses or by critics. In fact, Empire Of The Sun was, and still is, viewed as a complete flop of a film. I don’t really care about that last part to be honest, but it may be the best indicator of the enormous gulf that people place between Empire Of The Sun and Spielberg’s later World War II works, the TV mini-series’ Band Of Brothers and The Pacific included.
It’s sad that people have taken that stance on Empire Of The Sun, because they are missing out on, or shuffled to the side, a wonderfully compelling World War II tale. What I like most about Empire Of The Sun is how different it is, or at least how different it feels in its story. I can’t think of another film told exclusively from the British perspective inside occupied China during the war. I’m sure there are other films that deal with this, but I have yet to see them and thus Empire Of The Sun has a very unique story feel to me. This refreshing storytelling feel is helped by putting the viewer in the shoes of a ten to fourteen year old boy. The story has a jumbled feel to it, but that never bothered me because it struck me early on that a ten year old boy would view the world around him in a jumbled fashion.
It’s just as interesting to see that in his first World War II effort Spielberg has the same eye for the cinematic that he will bring to the table in the already mentioned Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Empire Of The Sun has a massive scope to it, it’s story may be centered rather acutely, but its visuals are far from acute. The landscapes are massive at points, the people exemplify the term “teeming masses” at differing times, and the direction is pure Spielberg. His camera is electrifying, turning even the smallest of moments into something that feels big. This does have its downfalls though, Empire Of The Sun suffers from the same problem that has plagued much of Spielberg’s more dramatic work.
There are times, more than a few to be exact, where Spielberg gets too precious with his camera, his storytelling, or just in general. Case in point is the scene just after the British have been brought to the Soochow Creek Internment Camp when Jim marvels at a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero, known in popular culture as simply the Zero. Time stops, a wonderful looking shot is carried out and the Japanese act very, well, not Japanese like as they allow this boy to stand there and marvel at their fighter plane. I don’t really care about the historical accuracy of the viciousness of the Japanese soldiers during World War II and how they most likely never would have allowed a young boy to get that close to one of their fighter planes. I do, however, find that scene, and a few others, to be prime examples of Spielberg taking too precious of a route with Empire Of The Sun. Scenes like that ultimately work against the power that Empire Of The Sun naturally contains, and are really the only thing holding the film back.
I was about to end my review, but then I remembered that I had completely forgotten to talk about a very important factor of why Empire Of The Sun works so well. You might say this is the most important factor behind why Empire Of The Sun is so good, and that is Christian Bale’s performance. I’ll take this Bale over present day Bale all the time, in Empire Of The Sun he acts, he becomes Jim. You feel for this kid, you feel with this kid, you believe the changes his character goes through. You understand why he idolizes the Japanese fighter pilots, and ultimately you root for him without even realizing that you are rooting for him. All of that is thanks to Bale’s brilliant performance, even as a kid he was a great actor and I know he can still be one today, if only he would leave his stupid gruff voice at home.
I know that I prefer Saving Private Ryan, I need to see Schindler’s List again to see how that stacks up, but Empire Of The Sun is a great film. It’s a great beginning to Spielberg’s unofficial World War II trilogy, and features one of the best child performances I think I’ve ever come across. It’s filmed beautifully, has a large scope, and outside of a few precious moments is a case of wonderful and engaging storytelling. Spielberg doesn’t always hit his mark, but he certainly did with Empire Of The Sun.