Sunday, April 29, 2007

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg's beautiful tale of World War II victims, was at best faintly praised as another Spielbergian tale of childhood adventure. But this earlier work by the director of Schindler's List emerges on reexamination as a celebration of enduring innocence and imagination in the face of the horrendous desperation and brutal reality of war. Like a deceptively simple symphony, its joys are revealed in repeat experiences, the subtleties that lie beneath the wide-eyed set pieces that often define Spielberg's work. Jim (Christian Bale) is the privileged child of wealthy British merchants in Shanghai in the years before World War II. He idolizes the pilots and aircraft of the war between Japan and China and dreams of soaring through the clouds, blissfully ignorant of the danger so close to his home. But when the Japanese army storms the port city, Jim is separated from his parents and faced with the bleak reality of life alone in a war zone. Falling in with an American scrounger named Basie (John Malkovich), Jim braves the hostile streets of Shanghai before being captured and dragged to the forbidding prison camps of the Japanese army. Jim's struggle to find his parents becomes secondary to the need to save himself and those around him. Adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) from J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun is not only one of Spielberg's most soulful movies, but also among his best. (all movie guide)

Being a big Spielberg fan, I first saw this movie within days of it's release and not only is this one of my favorite Spielberg films, but it is one of my all time favorite films in general. The movie consists of an amazing cast including the wonderful pairing of John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano but the obvious stand-out performance would have to be that of the 13-year-old Christian Bale. This was Bale's first big production after getting his start on the London stage with Rowan Atkinson and moving on to a few small television roles including commercials. Reportedly, Bale beat out 4000 other children for the role of Jim and, afterwards, the National Board of Review created a special award to honor his performance in the film.

The other huge star of this film, for me, is the direction. This is such a quintessential Spielberg film because every surrounding element seems to have a specific part to play, and practically every shot could be 'freeze-framed' and appreciated for it's intricacy. Through the course of the film, Spielberg creates, with the use of angle, lighting, placement and action, powerful images that remain sharp and distinct long after the initial viewing. This is one of maybe 4 films that I can think of that a person could watch from beginning to end with no sound and have little or no difficulty following the story and still be awed by the beauty and scope of the film.

Granted, this is only my opinion, but I believe an average person of reasonable intelligence would be hard pressed to find a better movie to spend two and a half hours with.

No comments: