There’s a rhyming in the posters of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial and Empire of the Sun. The big moon is replaced with the the big sun; the silhouetted child on the bike is now a silhouetted boy and the Michelangelo inspired contact between the alien finger and the human finger is now a near meeting of the boy’s toy airplane and the kamikaze fighter returning to the Earth in flames. The two films have a lot in common. They are about children who are essentially alone and look toward an alien other for an alternative identity and a possibility of escape.
Living in Shanghai, we find Jamie/Jim (future American Psycho and Batman Christian Bale) alternately yawning through choir practice and singing with an angelic voice. Unlike E.T.’s Elliott, Jamie is an obnoxious and spoiled brat. He treats the Chinese servants carelessly and though aware of the war, he’s as aloof as his parents and their upper class friends, attending costume parties while cholera rages and the rest of the country falls under the control of the Japanese invaders.
Spielberg – at his most unsentimental – never tries to make Jamie likable. He dreams of flight, but Jamie is the most unchildlike of Spielberg’s children, anticipating the camp children of Schindler’s List. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay stays close to JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel, although the novel itself strayed from his real life experiences significantly. For instance, Ballard’s parents were with him in the camp, whereas Jamie is separated from them, here and in the book, at an early point.
The adult world is absent following the Japanese invasion and Jamie enjoys a brief Home Alone moment of liberation, cycling around his large house, but food soon begins to run out and he must stray back into the city and seek help once more from adults. Basie (John Malkovich), a gleefully selfish American, befriends him. Basie’s self-serving amorality is fairly close to Jim’s own and at least he’s more charismatic than Nigel Havers’ priggish doctor. The truth is Jim needs no father figure. Once safely interned, Jim gets along just fine. In fact, he thrives much better than the adults around him, including a married couple who half-heartedly adopt him.
The English represent a failing empire of weakness, arrogance and defeat. The fight is really between the worldly ascendancy of the Americans and the fascist neatness and sacrifice of the Japanese, with the English as ironic and slightly befuddled bystanders. Rather than the doctor or Miranda Richardson’s narky Mrs Victor, Jim is drawn more to both the Japs and the Yanks. Basie looks like a character from his comic books, and the Japanese pilots preparing for their suicide missions seem like visions from his dreams.
The film was originally going to be directed by David Lean and Lean is an obvious influence, as well as a frequent visitor to the set. Like Kubrick, he was one of the older directors flattered by Spielberg’s youthful enthusiasm and called on to provide guidance as well as inspiration. Spielberg had Bridge Over the River Kwai in mind as an immediate model. As Alice Walker had approved of The Color Purple, so Ballard was invited on set and given a cameo at the fancy dress party Jim’s parents attend.
He approved of the picture and praised Christian Bale’s performance. And indeed it is. Bale grows as the film progress. The polished schoolboy, precociously proclaiming himself an atheist and wanting to write a book on contact bridge, becomes something of guttersnipe, a latter-day Artful Dodger, a scruffy survivor who nevertheless retains his integrity as the world falls apart around him.
There is something of the fever dream about Empire of the Sun. Violence happens, beatings are handed out to Basie twice and the doctor once, bombs explode, people play dead and then the next day they are. The attacks from the sky instead of being terrifying are exhilarating for Jim – ‘Cadillac of the Skies,’ he yells as the Americans bomb the Japanese airstrip near the camp. The nuclear blast which ends the war is witnessed in a graveyard of stuff – pianos, chandeliers, old Rolls Royces – a perfect moment of Ballardian dread. The old order has been eliminated at a stroke, but Jim feels more excitement than dread. ‘I learned a word today,’ he says having witnessed the white blast from Nagasaki. ‘Atomic bomb.’
Nowadays the film holds up partly because of its pre-CGI grandiosity – the crowd scenes and period detail are masterfully done – but mainly its because of the unsentimental perspective which we end up sharing with Jim. We understand that by the end of the film, Jim should be reunited with his family but there is something strangely muted about the happy ending, as if the family no longer truly recognizes its child. This new mature and darker tone can partly be attributed to collaborators such as Ballard and Tom Stoppard (you can read the screenplay here), the latter would become a constant script doctor for Spielberg, and the influence of Lean, who always had a misanthropic streak throughout his grandeur.
But Spielberg himself was capable and ready to look at the darkness of recent history and human nature without resorting to an over-leavening of humor or sentimentality, as he had done in The Color Purple (you can watch it on CHILI here). Empire would prove to Spielberg, and to a lesser extent the world, that he was more than a purveyor of blockbusting, crowd-pleasing entertainment. And all the more serious works of his subsequent filmography from Schindler’s List to Lincoln would owe a debt to this wonderful film of wartime drama.
Here’s the original trailer: