Sunday, June 25, 2023

Review: Steven Spielberg's "EMPIRE OF THE SUN"

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 27 of 2023 (No. 1916) by Leroy Douresseaux

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Running time:  153 minutes (2 hours, 33 minutes)
DIRECTOR:  Steven Spielberg
WRITER:  Tom Stoppard (based on the novel by J.G. Ballard)
PRODUCERS:  Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Allen Daviau (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Michael Kahn
COMPOSER:  John Williams
Academy Award nominee


Starring:  Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano, Leslie Phillips, Masato Ibu, Emily Richard, Rupert Frazer, Peter Gale, Takataro Kataoka, and Ben Stiller

Empire of the Sun is a 1987 wartime drama and historical film directed by Steven Spielberg.  The film is based on the 1984 semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, from author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009).  Empire of the Sun the film focuses on a young English boy who is separated from his parents and then, struggles to survive the Japanese occupation of China during World War II

Empire of the Sun opens in 1941 in the “International Settlement,” an enclave of British and American citizens in Shanghai, ChinaJames “Jamie” Graham is the only child of an British upper middle class couple, John Graham (Rupert Frazer) and Mary Graham (Emily Richard).  Jamie enjoys a privileged life in the International Settlement, but he keeps an eye on the activities of the Japanese who have encroached on Shanghai.  After their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese begin their occupation of the settlement.  During the family's bid to escape, Jamie is separated from his parents.

Eventually, Jamie is taken prisoner and moved into an internment camp.  He survives by befriending the American expatriate and hustler, Basie (John Malkovich), and also the kindly Englishman, Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havers).  Now, called “Jim” by everyone, he establishes a successful trading network that keeps him with food and necessities.  As World War II drags on, however, Jim realizes that he no longer remembers what his parents look like.

Last year, I began watching and, in some cases, re-watching early Steven Spielberg films, such as Duel, Jaws, and 1941, in anticipation of Spielberg's autobiographical film, The Fabelmans, which was released in 2022.  The film has long since completed its theatrical run, but there remained Spielberg films I wanted to see.  I had been putting off watching Empire of the Sun for 36 years, and my best resource to see it, DVDNetflix, is closing soon.  So why not see Empire of the Sun now?

What can I say?  Empire of the Sun is not one of Spielberg's better films.  It does not really have a narrative center, and the plot is unfixed.  The film plays like a series of anecdotes – many, many, many anecdotes – played over a film that runs nearly two and a half hours long.  Some of the scenes have great emotional impact, such as Jim's reunion with his parents and even that last shot of the suitcase in the water.  Still, overall, the film lacks dramatic heft and emotion.  It's too cold and is disjointed.  Instead of feeling like a narrative that flows from beginning to end, Empire of the Sun feels like individual pages from a children's picture book.

If Empire of the Sun is a coming-of-age story and a boys' adventure tale, then, the film needs a great boy.  That is what actor Christian Bale is for this film.  All of 13-years-old when filming began, Bale carries Empire of the Sun with the tenacity and acting chops of an actor more than twice his age.  Bale embodies the emotional depth and dramatic depth that this film lacks as a whole.  None of the other actors' performances approach his, not because they are bad, but because neither Spielberg nor Tom Stoppard's script gives them the space and material.

Spielberg makes this film seem as if its true purpose is to be about a boy and his wartime adventures.  Thus, none of the Japanese elements really feel as if they have the force of an empire behind them.  Still, the focus on Jim Graham works because Christian Bale is the child emperor of Empire of the Sun.

6 of 10
★★★ out of 4 stars

Sunday, June 25, 2023

1988 Academy Awards, USA:  6 nominations:  “Best Cinematography” (Allen Daviau), “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration” (Norman Reynolds and Harry Cordwell), “Best Costume Design” (Bob Ringwood), “Best Sound” (Robert Knudson, Don Digirolamo, John Boyd, and Tony Dawe), “Best Film Editing” (Michael Kahn), and “Best Music, Original Score” (John Williams)

1989 BAFTA Awards:  3 wins: “Best Cinematography” (Allen Daviau), “Best Score” (John Williams), and “Best Sound” (Charles L. Campbell, Louis L. Edemann, Robert Knudson, and Tony Dawe); 3 nominations:  “Best Screenplay-Adapted” (Tom Stoppard), “Best Costume Design” (Bob Ringwood), and “Best Production Design” (Norman Reynolds)

1988 Golden Globes, USA  2 nominations: “Best Motion Picture – Drama” and “Best Original Score-Motion Picture” (John Williams)

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