Always stay childish. No matter the situation.
Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a privileged little English boy living in Shanghai during the early-40’s and quite enjoying his time. He loves planes, the idea of flying, and most of all, enjoying his time as a kid while he has the chance to. That all changes when the Japanese invade and force all foreigners into prison camps. Separated from his parents, who he isn’t sure are actually alive or dead, Jamie is forced to look after himself inside the camp and rely not only on his smarts, but his general love for learning and meeting new people. And inside this camp, he gets the opportunity, which brings in some likable characters like an American sailor named Basie (John Malkovich), and not so likable ones like Frank (Joe Pantoliano).
Empire of the Sun is perhaps one of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated movies, mostly because people forget about it. Thrown in there during the late-80’s, after he got E.T. and the first two Indiana Jones movies out of the way, Spielberg wasn’t exactly known for heavy-duty, ridiculously-serious flicks just yet and it’s probably Empire of the Sun didn’t fully connect with audiences then, and in a way, still doesn’t today.
There’s a feeling of melodrama that runs rampant all throughout Empire of the Sun, where we know that what we’re getting is supposed to be sad, dark, and serious, but still also feels like Hollywood gloss. You could almost look at it like the exact opposite of Schindler’s List, where with that film, Spielberg would show no light, no humor, and absolutely not a single ounce of melodrama amongst the dark-as-hell proceedings. But at the same time, that movie wasn’t told through the perspective of a 12-year-old-child, so it makes sense for that to be deadly depressing and this one to be a little bit lighter on its feet.
Is this one any better? Not at all. But without comparing the two at all, it’s still pretty great.
If anything, Empire of the Sun proves that while Spielberg can be an accessible and populist director, he also isn’t afraid to allow for his stories to borderline on deeper, more mature themes about growing up, war, the cost of it, the affect of it, and more importantly, what’s the end result of it all. Empire of the Sun is an anti-war film in the sense that it shows us the damning affect it has on families and everyday citizens, but also what it has on the younger minds of our society, and how it forces children to grow up real quick and without a sense of how to do it. We see this with Jamie Graham who, for a child protagonist, has a lot more to him than just being silly and cute.
And yes, it also helps that he’s played by a very young and strapping Christian Bale who, in his first lead performance ever, shines and gives one of the greatest child performances ever. Bale plays Jamie as a kid, but never without making him seem too gullible or in-over-his-head; he’s a lot smarter than he lets on and is always able to react to the world around him. He gets frustrated and isn’t always making the best decisions, but he’s also a kid and he’s one we grow to understand, love, and constantly root for, even when it seems like he’s got all of the odds stacked against him and the future’s not looking so bright. There’s something sweet and almost beautiful about watching a Christian Bale blossom into the acting powerhouse Christian Bale we now know and it’s one of the many pleasures had from Empire of the Sun.
Among many. I assure you.
Consensus: While much sweeter and softer than most war-dramas, Empire of the Sun also remains one of Spielberg’s far more dramatic, emotional, and underrated pieces that is still looking for its audience, all of these years later.
9 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Warner Home Video