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MOVIE DADDY: Empire of the Sun

Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both a critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films of the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover the Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this installment, we’re taking a good ol’ hindsight look at Spielberg’s second attempt at awards legitimacy, Empire of the Sun.


In the late 80s, Steven Spielberg began to broaden his approach to which types of projects he was signing on to do. The outlook of his career up to this point was one of inarguable legitimacy: he was an insanely successful director, overflowing with blockbuster cred, whose name was already being placed above movie titles for marketing. You would be just as compelled to catch the latest Spielberg joint as many are to watch any of the numerous superhero-extended-universe blockbusters dropping these days. And this should have been enough. And while he has always returned to the fantastical genre-filmmaking that created the nuance around “A Steven Spielberg Film,” he started pretty early on in his career with what we now refer to as "the Serious Spielberg’s."

Tucked between his two Indiana Jones sequels, Spielberg attempted awards legitimacy with The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987). One is a period drama, the other a war film, but both involve a coming-of-age twist that allowed the director’s storytelling strengths to work within these new styles. While I haven’t seen the former (soon…), I can speak to the movie at hand, Empire of the Sun. The things I found most interesting on my recent rewatch of this piece were the staggeringly large amount of techniques that the director would go on to reuse in many of his later, more serious, and well-regarded fare. There’s a lot of Saving Private Ryan in Empire, as well as some of the subtleties - in rough form - that would lead to much of the director’s style in Schindler’s List. But in his early days, subtlety was not Spielberg’s strongest suit, which is why I think the initial reaction to Empire was one of “Eh, alright.” Spielberg’s a dude that relies on grand feeling, universal understanding, and the bombastic, relative want for wonder and need for escape. It should be pointed out early on here, that few do this as well as him. But in Empire, his tendencies to linger on images, and attempts to suggest themes, rather than outright exclaim, whether verbally or physically, come across a tad forced, but never actually seem fully superficial. He means what he is saying, but he hasn’t yet crafted the ability to, (I think) properly execute the task while staying within his stylistic tone, regardless of genre. Again, this is something he would perfect with Schindler’s List, and then come to weaponize in Saving Private Ryan. Empire of the Sun is a reactive film. Spielberg attempts to prove himself on a level other than his showmanship, which I think felt important to him at the time, but one that he might not have been properly prepared to really throw himself into. That being said, the movie is still a delight to watch, and with the hindsight of where his later career would take him, it is an extremely interesting look at a young, talented, and successful filmmaker, hellbent on reaching for something more. My take: Empire of the Sun is a flawed creation, but is nevertheless ambitious, highly underrated, and worthy of a closer look.

Before we move on, just what is this movie about? Based on J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical book, it follows a story that takes place during 1941 wartime Shanghai, a chapter of World War II that is usually overlooked, most likely given the, uhh, other really crazy shit going on elsewhere. The book deals with the heavy themes of war and class, which are both included in Spielberg’s film, but not as prominently as the other themes the director has in mind to play with. This is where we come to one of the largest complaints of Empire of the Sun: What’s the point? What message is this story trying to convey? General consensus at its time of release was that the movie was thrilling, yet lacked an overall theme, which is a wild take for me, as the simple theme of loss of innocence is aggressively apparent, and the underlying themes are easy enough to consider and expound upon (which I will in a moment). However, to be fair, I think I get the criticism. Spielberg’s own tactics and passions as a filmmaker can sometimes override a deeper meaning, especially when he’s going for a more subtle, artistic approach to expressing the narrative, which he VERY much is going for in Empire. It’s sort of the dreaded “style over substance” take, which I’ve never really taken to approving of when critiquing films. I’ll hold my monocle to my dreary, left eye while I briefly state that, yes, sometimes a film can be extremely joyful in style and lack substance in ANY thematic way, but rarely have I found it called for to use such a throwaway cliche. It’s usually reserved for viewers too distracted by impressive cinematography and effects (or, alternatively, movies too filled with these things for the viewer to be given the slightest care for anything else) to be bothered with that pesky thing called a metaphor. I’m half kidding here, but yes, I think it’s a little overused and can feel a tad rude. Maybe? Doesn’t really matter.

You’ve got your typical war cliches going on here: the horrors of war, seen through the eyes of a child, set upon an odyssey through this historical event, but it’s got a bit more on its mind than just that. While the main theme is obviously the loss of innocence, as detailed by the many, many coming-of-age tropes, it’s also a movie about how war does not define a people, but how it can still confuse and change us. It’s a movie about a boy earnestly attempting to understand how he can one day escape to the sky, whether by plane or by soul, bringing about many of the movie’s comments on the similarities between enlightened religion and worldly experience. This is a movie where many of the characters are treated as wholly unique individuals, yet still represent (as metaphors) their country/culture’s place in WWII (the American’s simply waiting and bartering shady deals, the Japanese eagerly grasping at any type of victory). This is all a lot, no argument, but what a viewer can take away from all of this really depends on how they are approaching the film and letting the film happen to them. For example, there’s a sadness that anyone with half a heart, and the slightest interest in the movie they’re watching, will feel when Jim, our boy hero, confesses to a doctor that he can no longer remember what his mother looks like. Anyone can get what the “point” of this moment is meant to convey. But does it feel "cheesy?" Or sincere and relatable? I’d say that depends on the outlook of the person judging.

Leaning back from what I THINK works with this movie, let’s focus on some stuff that sure as shit does. This is Christian Bale’s first performance, with an “Introducing” and everything. Over 4,000 kids auditioned for the role of Jim, and we got a kid that would become one of the most popular award darlings in current times. His performance drives home Spielberg’s main theme: youth dealing with death leading to the death of youth. What’s unique to Bale’s Jim, in relation to other Speilberg child protagonists, is his innate unlikability. The kid is kind of a dipshit, and although he grows and evolves quite well as a character, there's always a fanciful air to him that keeps the audience at arm's length; the Trials of Lord Farquaad, so to speak. There’s a cluelessness to his actions - from ordering a maid to make him biscuits, to telling an extremely sick woman to lie down and play dead, which she ultimately does all too well - that persists throughout the story. In a moment of pure, “Now That’s What I Call Acting,” Jim’s innocence is finally and completely swept away with the arrival of the world’s - and even more specifically, America’s - loss of innocence: the dropping of the atom bomb. After this, Jim is left alone and confused as to what to do next, leading to his childlike belief that he can save everyone; innocence attempting to grasp onto the boy as it suffocates into nothingness. Bale’s child performance here is legend, one of the things Spielberg himself is so well known for. Spielberg always imbues his protagonists with childlike subtleties, from the plucky, dag-nab-it sensibilities of Indiana Jones, to the selfish and ignorant motivations behind Oskar Schindler’s first actions, which end up in a similar place as Jim’s unrealistic “I can bring everyone back” sentiment. So when Spielberg uses actual children as his main characters, which he often does, a lot of his skills crossover, making him great with child actors. As Spielberg himself once said when complimented on his talent with both casting and working with younger actors: “When a director casts the part, his job is now complete.” Spielberg knows what he wants when he sees it.

The rest of the film's cast is just a dream and Spielberg again utilizes his innate ability to make the audience empathize with (if not at the very least be interested in) the motivations of each character. You’ve got Joe Pantoliano doing his finely crafted, worn-upon sidekick shtick, Ben Stiller popping in an all-timer “Oh, look who that is!” role, and Miranda Richardson burning up the screen as the unenthused adoptive-mother to Bale’s protagonist. But the true, bright star of this film’s ancillary characters is John Malkovich’s Basie, a character practically pulled from a Dickens novel; he's the Fagin to Jim’s Twist. Basie’s relationship with Jim grows from one of simply progressing the plot while pointing out a few themes (when Basie compliments Jim’s respectful demeanor by saying, “You’ve got nice manners, I appreciate that,” he’s reinforcing the film’s theme on how we can respect one another, even in times of hardship and war), to that of the devilish side, of which future Jim will ultimately choose to walk. Malkovich does his usual balancing of impeccable acting with an almost too on-the-nose performance of giving us exactly what we expect this character to be, and for me, it really works. When Basie is first introduced, we see that he looks similar to the character on the cover of Jim’s comic book, primarily due to him stealing Jim’s own aviators and donning them in a premiere scene that teases the reveal of Malkovich’s full face like a Marvel announcement panel. It’s great stuff that you love to see.

While the box office performance of Empire was a dark sight (it only made back $22 million of its $38 million budget), its critical reception is one of massive interest to me. As previously mentioned, the film was met with some harsh criticism regarding lack of themes and message, something I’ve gotten into a bit already, but most interestingly are the change in gears that occurred since the film’s release. Many, like myself, now praise the film for its tenacity, and the ambition of Spielberg to try and break away from his summer blockbuster aesthetics and create something with “true weight.” This is, of course, indicative of the bullshit that can happen upon a risky film’s initial release, one free of hindsight and cemented purely in the “this is how this movie plays now” type of journalistic film criticism. That’s all well and fine, and no one can really be blamed for judging how a movie works at the time of its release as opposed to what the movie becomes long after, but an unfortunate side-effect of Empire’s bad box office performance and lukewarm critical reception is a maligned perception of the movie’s actual worth. To be fair, the film's length, and its relatively somber and simple themes, juxtaposed with Spielberg’s usual huge sets and wild action scenes, can create a sort of mundane feeling in a viewer. I personally find it thrilling that Spielberg continuously shifts gears all throughout this movie, so that you never quite know what to expect, but I can totally understand how this movie would miss the mark with some audiences, even professional critics.

"The book was filled with visual references. And that’s the thing that I really responded to: being able to tell this story through the eyes of a child, and to show the child losing all that. Because it’s about the death of childhood, this story is probably quintessentially more about the death of childhood than anything I’ve made, before or after."

-Spielberg, on what drew him to the book, and the film's ultimate theme.

Spielberg is, even in many dark and dire genres, an optimistic filmmaker and storyteller, especially during his earlier years. In hindsight, it’s apparent that perhaps a few missteps throughout the '00s taught him a certain kind of humility that has helped hone his expressive nature when it comes to some more serious content. There’s not much positivity in Munich, for example. It’s not at all derogatory to think that Spielberg needed to lose a little of his own innocence before tapping into that flair that he is now known for in his more serious flicks and that at the time, such a swerve from what he was known for would be met with a bit of casual shruggery, especially given the negative critical reception to his previous “serious” effort, The Color Purple. As Roger Ebert stated, in his surprisingly positive review at the film’s release: “Spielberg allows the airplanes, the sun and the magical yearning to get in his way.” Spielberg’s motives were, unsurprisingly, sincere: “I’ve been looking for a visual narrative - a story that could be told nearly exclusively through visual metaphors and non pretentious symbolism.” This criticism could seem sort of harsh and uncalled for, but I myself have always been of the mindset that to reach for non-pretension is better than to simply mimic the artistry of other successful projects and fail. Being pretentious is faking, and calling others pretentious is dumb and gets no one anything. But aspiring to communicate a new style non-pretentiously is both responsible and probably well-guided.

Art requires artificiality, and the execution of something artificial requires a steady hand, in both visuals and tone. Spielberg tries to emulate the great artistic moments of other films, from Bergman to his buddy Coppola but is held back by his own populace approach to every other aspect of filmmaking. It’s a balancing act, one that becomes increasingly detrimental when the weight of success is ever prominent in a director’s mind. There are even moments where dialogue, most likely expository in nature, is removed to allow for a more “artsy” interpretation. For example, when Jim confronts Basie in a muddy stream, he is clearly speaking a line of resentment, or chastising Basie in some way: you can see Bale’s mouth moving as he delivers a line. The dialogue is removed, leaving only Malkovich’s wordless reaction, changing a brute condemnation into a more surreal, emotive moment of understanding between our two “main” characters. This type of post-production editing is not at all uncommon, happening in just about every movie and (especially) TV show you’ve ever seen, but in the context of what Spielberg seems to be going for with this editing choice, it’s easy to see that he wanted to land an emotional moment with a more subversive attitude, as opposed to what was clearly intended when he shot the scene on that day.

These types of choices are indicative of the emotional weight of Spielberg’s efforts, and occasionally, they work well as individual pieces, in and of the moment, but not as a whole collective of #feels throughout the narrative. The only real link we have from an emotional arc scene to scene is Bale’s performance, which technically is Spielberg’s doing, but the positive results seem to lean more towards the actions of Bale himself, as a performer, than anything else. But much of Spielberg’s usual technical flair is still on display here, only morphed and honed into something much more, for a lack of a better word, mature. His tracking shots slow, his pushes twist, his color palette is bleak and gray, and his fades result in long moments of emptiness to really thrust home the idea of time passing more vigorously. The opening shot of coffins, being run over by a boat, is one hell of a table-setter, especially for our Bearded Boy. And you can’t get much more Spielbergian than the film’s opening moments: a young boy yawning at a choir performance, being hassled by the nods and gestures of a caretaker from the bleachers, while simultaneously being reprimanded by the snapping of fingers and repeated slamming of palms on a bible by an infuriated pastor.

And while we’re just talking up Spielberg’s amazing abilities as a filmmaker (which is what I’m best at), the footprint scene in Jim’s parents' bedroom (watch here, at about 01:15) is more than enough to solidify the film's bonafides in expressing its narrative with a more visually meaningful tone than expositorily. The camera work in the “Pheasant Hunt” scene is also pure Spielberg magic, using angles and blocking to suggest the non-visibility of something that would most assuredly be seen in reality, but we get it, cause the dude is just that good. And, of course, we have Spielberg’s ever-present motif of the relationship we share with our parents, this time using separation in wartime as a metaphor for divorce. Spielberg has a bunch of stuff that he’s really good at, and he’s not going to let some pesky thing like being “a war movie” get in the way of that.

And, as always with these pieces, here are a few leftover notes I had that I think are pretty interesting:

When Jamie is riding his bike around his empty house, is this something that David Fincher was referencing in Fight Club or something he just completely ripped off? Riding bikes in places you shouldn't is no unique idea, but these scenes look wildly similar. AFAF.

John Williams’ score includes some predictably recognizable fare, while it also includes some heavily mid-80s stylized instrumental arrangements. At times, it sounds like the score to a slasher film’s most tension-raising scenario. Also, his leitmotif of choral arrangements throughout the film is an appreciation that really anchors the film’s tone.

The Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom From Fear,” that Jim hangs on his wall throughout the film holds a motif that is an amazing use of imagery to describe many of the movie’s themes in a single image, from Jim’s admiration of the doctor as a role model, to even the memory of his parents:

Empire of the Sun is a good movie, which is something I myself rarely say about a film directed by my boi, but there’s no arguing: there are flaws apparent in the final product. While these flaws, I believe, are due to the filmmaker's youth - being in a bit over his head, trying to reach for something that he believes will ultimately save him - it goes without saying, that he eventually proves good on his promise. Steven Spielberg, as you know, is a king in churning out amazing films, of the same ilk as Empire, many of which have exceeded even the high hopes of his 1987 exploit. One of the most fascinating things about Spielberg is the variety inherent in his filmography. I mean, c’mon, the dude that made Indiana Jones also did that crazy good Abraham Lincoln movie. Oh, this can lead me to my outro:

On the next Movie Daddy, we’re gonna take a real good look at what just might be Spielberg’s best movie ever: Raiders of the Lost Ark.


Mike Burdge


Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.