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Empire of the Sun

tn_empireofthesunspielberg“Excuse me everyone – I surrender!”

Wow – for some reason I never had any interest in EMPIRE OF THE SUN before. Turns out it’s great and sort of a beginning for alot of things. It’s Spielberg’s first WWII drama. One of Christian Bale’s first movies. The one that gave Ben Stiller the idea for TROPIC THUNDER. etc.

It’s a great story about a kid trapped in a conflict he could never understand – not just in the sense that war is incomprehensible, but also in the sense that his situation is fuckin complicated. In fact he spends an early chunk of the movie going around trying to surrender and everybody just laughs at him.

mp_empireofthesunSee, Bale plays this kid Jamie and he’s not an idealized kid, he’s kind of a little brat. His family is British but they live in a mansion in Shanghai, a city under the control of Japan. Colonists under occupation. They can tell something’s going on with the Japanese soldiers – that’s because they’re on standby because they’re about to attack Pearl Harbor (is this a prequel to 1941!?) and then the everyday conflict between China and Japan is gonna become much more serious.

Jamie’s family sides with the Chinese, because they feel like that’s their people, but the Chinese – being their maids and drivers and shit – don’t exactly side with them. Jamie likes the Japanese because he’s obsessed with airplanes and he thinks their Zeros are cool. To him the ominous signs of looming war are an exciting time, like a parade coming through town. I mean, what the hell does he know about war other than a list of the coolest planes and the romantic painting on the huge GONE WITH THE WIND billboard he walks past in town?

When the shit goes down Jamie gets separated from his parents – we don’t even know if they’re alive or not. Spielberg didn’t know that the key to box office gold was to have some bungling burglars come after him and he throws stuff at their testes, so instead the movie is about his struggle to survive through the war.

First he pulls an OMEGA MAN and lives in abandoned mansions scrounging canned food and candy. In one great scene he rides a bike through the house. It’s a joyful moment of rebellion and playfulness and at the same time kind of a scary sign that this kid might not be cut out to survive this situation. Does he understand how serious this is? No, he’s just a spoiled little boy. Well, he was. Not so spoiled anymore. Now it’s time for him to prove his salt.

Eventually he ends up in a series of internment camps, where he befriends Basie (John Malkovich), a resourceful survivor of questionable morals, plus other adults (Joe Pantoliano, Ben Stiller) and learns lessons about disease, ass-kissing, looting dead bodies, networking and protecting your stuff. He has to deal with sadistic generals, adults who’ve lost their minds under the stress, people trying to steal his stuff. Doesn’t ever have to do homework though, so that’s probly a plus for a kid I guess.

Jamie was just born into this. It’s not his fault his ancestors colonized this place, or that his family is rich. Give him some blame for bossing the maids around like they were Shane Hurlbut, but he’s too young to know better. He’s got nothing to do with any of this. He’s just a dumb little kid who loves airplanes. He builds a relationship with a Japanese kid on the other side of the barbed wire who plays with toy planes just like he does. We see glimpses of that kid’s life and how he wants nothing more than to fly one of those Zeros. How did they convince this kid that the best thing in the world would be a suicide mission? Well, Jamie would probly want the same thing in his shoes. Some higher up assholes set this machine in motion and kids like this don’t even know they’re getting crushed between the gears.

Basie teaches Jamie all about stuff: getting stuff, protecting stuff. He knows where all the top grade stuff is, so even when he gets out he’s all about driving around finding the best loot. He dresses like he’s in ROAD WARRIOR! Jamie has to learn for himself that there’s more to life than stuff.

It is also important to note that FIST OF LEGEND took place in the Shanghai International Settlement a few years before these events begin. It’s possible that little Jamie pranced condescendingly past Chen Zhen on the street at some point.

For about a year David Lean was gonna direct this, with Spielberg producing. Eventually Lean gave up and tagged in Spielberg, saying he was better at directing kids. Kinda similar to what happened with Kubrick and A.I. in a way. Sadly Lean only directed one more movie, the sequel ANOTHER STAKEOUT, before his death in 1991. (more trivia for you: I made that up, he didn’t direct any more movies, including that one.) The script was by Tom Stoppard, the playwright known for ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD as well as BRAZIL and of course that Craig Baxley movie starring Charlie Sheen as a fireman who snaps and instead of going on tour like Charlie did in real life he goes on a rampage.

Spielberg also got an uncredited rewrite out of Menno Meyjes (RICOCHET). It’s based on a book written by J.G. Ballard which was in turn partly based on a life lived by J.G. Ballard. He didn’t get separated from his parents, but did live in camps like that. I should’ve figured out it was semi-autobiographical ’cause the kid is always excited about words. Oh, writers.

I never read a J.G. Ballard but of course he’s the guy who wrote the book that became Cronenberg’s CRASH. Believe it or not this does have some parallels thanks to Jamie’s fetishistic love of airplanes. When he’s on that roof he yells about “touching” the plane by feeling its heat, about tasting it – “Oil and cordite!” A precursor to Deborah Kara Unger touching her nipples to a plane to get off.

This is a great story and it’s full of great moments, odd little occurrences that reflect the surreal unpredictability of war: little Jamie dressed as a pirate for a party stumbling into an entire platoon of soldiers hiding behind a hill. Accidentally amusing his captors by saluting their planes. Bewildering them by singing with a voice that seems like a dream inside a prison camp (a special skill he learned in the choir at school).

It also has some incredible effects and stunts involving the planes. When Jamie’s on the roof some pilots fly by really low and god damn if it doesn’t look real. If so I can’t believe Spielberg did that after what happened on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. But obviously they were more careful on this one.

Turns out Bale was a good child actor. Here he is playing children of privilege like Bruce Wayne and Patrick Bateman, but without having to learn an accent. I really think this experience probly helped form him into the actor he is now. His character has the intense focus and then he starts to crack under the pressure. I love that scene I already mentioned where he’s on the roof watching Allied bombers attack. He should be ducking for cover but instead he’s nerding out about the aircraft, yelling about the “P-51 – Cadillac of the sky!” When he’s reduced to just “HORSE POWER!!!” I think that’s the crazy Bale we know today.

It’s one of those movies that keeps you riveted and leaves you feeling exhausted at the end, you’ve been through so much. I mean, they’re not trying to kill him as much but it still reminded me a little bit of THE PIANIST. He goes through this whole ordeal and it’s a breath of fresh air when it’s finally over. You feel so good for him. Except he’s so young he’s kind of clueless about what’s going on around him. Spielberg has that reputation as some kind of saccharine, happy ending type of guy, which I don’t think is fair (except TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and HOOK). This movie turns that accusation on its head.

That’s the best trick of the movie: it’s cleverly shown from Jamie’s naive perspective. He doesn’t always understand what’s going on, so the John Williams score doesn’t either. The best example of this is when he sees the atomic bomb blast but he thinks it’s a soul going up to Heaven. He watches in awe and the music acts like he’s watching E.T.’s space ship or something. The filmatism makes it look beautiful, and we know better, but the music doesn’t let on.

(Weirdly, Spielberg and Williams did a similar thing with a mushroom cloud in KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, but it was more of an action setpiece punchline in that one.)

(Have you guys checked that one out yet? I still think you would like it.)

EMPIRE OF THE SUN is a good one. I know it got good reviews and everything but if there is an under-appreciated Spielberg joint this might be it. It doesn’t come up that much after the huge success of the other two WWII movies he did, but it’s another really interesting and completely different perspective of the same worldwide catastrophe.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 16th, 2012 at 11:49 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

34 Responses to “Empire of the Sun”

  1. I absolutely love this movie and in my opinion it’s one of Spielberg’s best, I agree that it’s under-appreciated

    but Vern, I ca’t help but ask, why are you so hesitant to review The Color Purple?

  2. Good movie, but reading about that Cronenberg-CRASH connection makes me want to *not* revisit EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Weird stuff, gets even weirder the more I think about it. Eww.

    For some reason, I now crave a midnight snack of marshmallows with sugar-drenched corn-based product & milk — you know, a “nutritious breakfast.”

  3. “I know it got good reviews and everything but if there is an under-appreciated Spielberg joint this might be it.”

    Vern – Reading up when that movie came out, the reaction reminds me of WAR HORSE (which I’ve not seen) in that people either adored it, or hated it for being such a weepy-designed movie. I gathered this sense (my interpretation, no facts) that people were wary of the Beard producing Oscar Bait-looking material right after COLOR PURPLE got its ass shut out at the Oscars.

    One of those times where some critics punish a movie for the father’s previous sins, when they ended up punished a good fucking movie. Hell reading up the EMPIRE review by Roger Ebert (a critic I like), he really comes off as fucking anal and pissy at the time for the sake of it. Really laughable when he criticized Spielberg for softening up the material about Japan’s invasion. What bullshit.

    Back when he was at AICN, I do remember Moriarty at the chat room claiming once that EMPIRE was the biggest bomb of the late 80s. I don’t know how that’s true, but anyway he did say something else that charts on-line seem to suggest might be true: the movie was a “hit” everywhere but in America. (At least it looks that way.)

    Anybody ever heard the legend that when HEAVEN’S GATE spiraled outof control, United Artists really did their bests to allegedly fire Cimino and replace him with David Lean? If that story is true, he saw footage that was pitched to him “as straight from your movies!” and he thought it was shit. He passed. Or he knew that Titanic can’t stop sinking.

  4. I don’t hate WAR HORSE. WAR HORSE hates me.

    Spielberg didn’t fuck up on WAR HORSE. Spielberg actively intended to do what he did with WAR HORSE — chug 146 minutes worth of Gatorade, gnaw on some asparagus, take my $11, and point his urethra at my face as he empties his bladder.

    Some things can’t be unbroke.

    I enjoy all the Indiana Joneses. All of them. I defend MUNICH, even though on 2nd viewing the assassination scenes aren’t as clever & tense as I had initially believed. I’m still inspired & shocked by the way Ralph Fiennes learns & unlearns the mercy=real power lesson in SCHINDLER’S LIST.

    I dig a bunch of his stuff, even allowing myself to appreciate the kiddie perspective of half his filmatistic choices. But that damn WAR HORSE is an insult that I don’t think I can forgive. I don’t trust Spielberg to not be laughing at me from now on when I pay for his new movies.

  5. It’s Spielberg’s first WWII drama, correction, second drama. Raiders was a highly accurate portrayal of WW2. It was like the viewer was really there man.

  6. Sorry Mac, but Raiders take place before the war…

  7. Mouth – like I said comrade, I haven’t seen WAR HORSE. So maybe Stevie hates me too. I’m not deconstructing your Spielberg record to make sure it fits the local orthodoxy to a view. I am not the GOP primaries.

    “I don’t trust Spielberg to not be laughing at me from now on when I pay for his new movies.”

    No he only laughs at you before he rapes.

    pegsman – I bet if Indy’s RAIDERS exploits had been made public at the time (and especially his LAST CRUSADE adventure), he would’ve been blasted by the Isolationists for being a war monger, a liberal mascot, and Semitic-tool.

    I mean imagine if the Ark of the Covenant’s discovery had been public. We would’ve had an epic deacdes-long feud about who should be allowed to display it. Americans because fuck you world, we found it and saved it from the Nazis. Or Israel because well, its not the rebuilt Solomon’s Temple but close. Or Egypt because that’s where it had been stored for thousands of years and you know, alot of those local workers helped Whitey dig it up.

    Nevermind the philosophical and religious public ramifications.

  8. Man as much as I enjoy this one my perspective on it has changed now that I know that it was Stiller’s TROPIC THUNDER muse. Makes me almost think lesser of it cause I thought TROPIC THUNDER fucking sucked.

  9. I seem to remember that critics in 1987 tended to compare EMPIRE OF THE SUN unfavorably to Bertolucci’s LAST EMPEROR, which is obviously a much better movie by a better director, though the comparisons seemed based more on the release dates, period detail and Asian settings than they did anything more specifically filmatical.

    I don’t have much of a memory of film criticism using the language of the film auteur to describe Speilberg until after SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Even his 1980s Oscar bait didn’t really inspire critics to look at his ouevre as a coherent entitity.

    Nor do I remember ciritics going out of their way to consescend to him, even when he was putting out laughable stuff like ALWAYS. At least until SCHINDLER’S LIST Speilberg seemed to inhabit a peculiar place somewhere between serious film criticism and popular fare.

  10. And I guess that’s where the comparison to Bertolucci came in; politics. When Spielberg tries to be political he’s so clearly out of his depth that a lot of people actually take offence.

  11. Sigh…and here he is, folks. The guy who previously posted about how Schindler’s List is laughable and how the “plot” of Empire Of The Sun is about as plausible as an Indiana Jones movie. That would be Empire Of The Sun, the autobiographical true story that actually happened to J.G. Ballard.

    And, please, tell us what some people take “offence” at in Spielberg’s “political” films (I presume you mean Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich and the forthcoming Lincoln). If it’s anything like your critque of Empire of The Sun I’m sure it’ll be highly enlightening.

    Also: If Bertolucci ever was a better director then Spielberg (which I doubt, but…) he ain’t anymore. He’s sort’ve the European Ridley Scott, except without the mass audience appeal. Now, there’s no question that he’s rightfully earned his place in film history with The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris and The Last Emperor (and his co-scripting, with Dario Argento, no less, of Once Upon A Time In The West). But his body of work is nowhere near as consistent as Spielberg’s. As somebody once said, he used to make great films, now he makes movies about pretty locations and hot girls getting topless.

  12. Isn’t Ridley Scott the European Ridley Scott?

  13. Tawdry bites his tongue and backs away slowly. Very, very slowly.

  14. So happy to read a Vern review of this flick. It’s my favorite Spielberg. It’s more a personal thing, as at the time I saw it I was also a kid in Asia who got to emulate Christian Bale by hiding in a rice paddy from a crazed machete-wielding farmer. Not as scary as him sneaking through the fence, but it felt pretty heroic.
    Also I remember seeing a behind the scenes featurette on the VHS that showed that the low-flying planes were about 1/3 scale radio-controlled models, and then they set off explosions on the ground as they flew over, so I guess they figured that was safer.
    Never thought about the plane fetish thing paralleling the CRASH sex stuff. I don’t think Jamie was into plane sex, but I could see him digging a chick who was, later on. A lot of Spielberg’s awe/wonder moments don’t quite do it for me, but I still really like the secene where Jamie reachs out to touch the Zero. Maybe it’s because it seems like a more complex emotion since it’s not just a cool thing, but a thing that’s part of what has destroyed the safety of his world? But I guess that would describe the scientists seeing the dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK too…

  15. Ugh CRASH. Back when I was in high school I used to hang with this art film loving chick and she brought this movie over cause at the time Cronenberg was king in her eyes. My christian uncle walked in on us watching James Spader cornhole Casey FUCKING Jones in that lame ass movie and we haven’t really much spoken ever since (my uncle and I). There was no way to explain any of it but I haven’t watched that movie ever since either.

  16. Sigh, yes, Britain is within the boundaries of Europe, isn’t it? Okay, that’s not really what I meant anyway….I suppose I could say Bertolucci’s the continental Ridley Scott, but that doesn’t quite get it either. And I can’t really just say he’s simply the Italian Ridley Scott, because that’s probably more Dario Argento. And honestly, Ridley Scott probably isn’t the greatest comparison anyway. Let’s see…gorgeous visuals often disguising relative lack of substance….Well, perhaps if Bertolucci’s family had emigrated to America he’d be Micheal Cimino.

  17. I’ll return to topic, and state my absolute love for Empire Of The Sun.

    I saw Scorsese do a Q&A once, and he mentioned Empire Of The Sun, and talked about the scene where the Kamikaze pilots salute the dawn (“Tenno hekuu, Banzai!”); Marty said something, very rapidly and offhandedly, that I’ll never forget, about how “we see them through the boy’s eyes–the last samurai–it’s how Steven sees, you see through his eyes too.”

  18. Crash is a friggin’ masterpiece.

  19. yeah, I liked Crash as well

  20. Since everyone is down on Post Last Emperor Bertolucci, I will say that I really enjoyed Little Buddha. I couldn’t believe it since its a movie about Buddhism and Reincarnation starring Keanu Reeves and Chris Isaak (who I’ve subsequently enjoyed in other stuff, especially that showtime series The Chris Isaak show). The movie hit me hard despite some unintentionally funny Keanu Reeves moments.

    About Bertolucci’s “exotic locals with hot topless girls” films, he’s one of the few directors who can make that kind of movie and not make it sleazy. Stealing Beauty was like a perfect blend of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit shoot, a melodrama, and a soft core porn. His films are just too beautiful to look at for me not to like. Not oscar worthy ( I hate that term but I got nothing else) but I enjoy them. Plus he convinced Liv Tyler and Eva green to get naked in his films which, in my opinion, makes the world a better place.

  21. ThomasCrown442 – I loved The Dreamers for that very same reason

  22. “Speilberg seemed to inhabit a peculiar place somewhere between serious film criticism and popular fare.”

    Jareth – I could almost say the same for right now about Nolan. He’s got a truckload of DGA nods already, but not a single Oscar nom for Best Director. Critics seem to kiss his ass, the Internet* kisses his ass, and so far he’s made good money for his employers.

    (looking up wikipedia, Spielberg wasn’t even nominated for director for COLOR PURPLE, so one small snub on top of that infamous shut out that night.)

    *=If there was true Internet in the 80s, the nerds reading Starlog and Fangoria would hailing Steven just the same. Imagine the Internet backlash once people saw TEMPLE OF DOOM. “No Time for Love, Dr. Jones!” would become an annoying meme symbolizing dropping the ball.

  23. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    January 17th, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    JD – personally speaking, I think “Schindler’s List” is the best Spielberg film I’ve seen. And I hate, hate, hate “Munich”. For the record, the reaction of pretty much everyone else I know on that film is either neutral or downright negative – nobody actually likes it. So I’m not alone over here, but most Americans seem to love it. I don’t know why that is.

    RRA – the difference between Nolan and Spielberg is that, whether or not you like Nolan’s individual touches, they’re always used to enhance his vision. Some people hate what he does with them. That’s fine, that’s subjective choice. But you can’t deny the guy has one hell of a plan for every film, and he knows how to carry it out. “Inception” in particular is a perfect jigsaw-puzzle of a movie. Every part of it fits together in its own natural space. Every scene has a reason for being there, every little touch enhances a mood or adds to a character.

    (Ok, you MIGHT deny that statement – the batmobile sections in “Batman Begins” that stink of producer interference, for example, because I don’t have a clue why they’re in the film otherwise. But for the most part, I think my point stands there’s a clearly defined vision for each film, and that vision “fits” the precise themes, tones, and moods of the film in question.)

    Spielberg, on the other hand, has become more and more self-indulgent with every film. He forces his own obsessions into every film, whether they belong there or not, at the expense of these films. I’ve already given an example – a list of them, to be more precise – with his whole obsession with “family” and how it’s dragged down some otherwise excellent films. I’ve written reams on this forum about how “Minority Report” went from being what was potentially one of the greatest sci-fi epics ever, to one of the most frustrating. I have enormous respect for the man and his body of work, but he frustrates me a helluva lot.

  24. I forgot to mention earlier that this is one of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen

    I mean, it’s looks like a moving painting….

  25. This movie had a scary quality for me as a child. I was only a little younger than Bale’s character at the time, so the thought of having to survive those experiences without your parents and without having a clue if they were alive or dead blew my (already) warped young mind. I love how it puts Jamie in all these situations that should have eradicated any trace of innocence but he retains a good portion of it until it’s finally killed off at the same time as his Japanese friend. The ending with the parents is so bittersweet because you see how innocent and sweet the other “lost” children seem in comparison and witness how his parents almost overlook him. The way Bale held himself in that scene just kills me, and now that I’m an adult with children of my own, it makes it harder to watch because it is so clear all that was lost in Jamie.

  26. JD, I think you’re confusing me with someone else – or you automatically think the worst when I mention politics (that happens a lot). But it is true that I don’t care for the tone of Empire of the Sun. As for the critisism of Spielberg’s politics I don’t personally have a problem with it, but I can tell you that I’ve been to a lenghty seminar dealing with (among other things) racism in movies and both Temple of Doom and Color Purple were given a lot of attention. Again, this is not me saying this, I’m just the messenger.

  27. I’ve been meaning to rewatch Empire of the Sun. It’s been forever since I first saw it. I absolutely agree that Spielberg has been trapped between film populism and critical appreciation. In more recent years he has tried to make one movie for his mass audience followed by one for the critics. Although, I’m not certain it has completely worked. The general public still hates him because he’s not making the same movies he did twenty or thirty years ago, and critics keep on damning him for his sentimentality, to the point where this has been somewhat exaggerated in recent years. A.I. is a great example of a film that, even though it’s great, or near great, seemed to please just about no one at the time (although I think it’s time for people to start appreciating that movie). The Crystal Skull is a great example of a film that may have had some terrible flaws at the end, but was torn apart because it was, to be honest, just as campy as Indy 2 and 3. The guy can’t win.

  28. Hey, I like Little Buddha too. Wonderful movie, co-written by Rudy Wurlitzer. But it just doesn’t reach the same heights as his best work, y’know? Same with The Sheltering Sky, The Dreamers, and 1900. I even enjoy his stuff like Stealing Beauty, although with those you really do get the feeling that this guy is kinda just coasting…

  29. The robo-boy in AI makes me think of how Osment’s character contrasts with Vern’s point about Jamie seeming like a real human boy by being bratty. It’s interesting to me that I like that in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, but not in say, young Anni Skywalker. Jamie’s brattiness seems to humanize him, while his dreams of flying seem to bring out the best in how kiddies are able to fully love their desires for experiences they admire. Good kid character.

  30. Empire of the Sin is one of my favorite all time movies, glad you liked it Vern.

  31. one thing that’s great about this movie is the tone, it’s both heartbreakingly bleak while at the same time being kinda uplifting in a way

    I mean this poor kid goes through so much and yet survives, but at what cost to his mental state?

  32. the nuclear bomb scene is another example, the light in the sky IS beautiful, but it means so many people are dying

    I guess the takeaway from the movie is that sometimes life can be beautiful and ugly at the exact same time

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