The mid-80s and early-90s stage of Steven Spielberg’s career can very easily be called his prime. After establishing himself as a crowd pleaser with films such as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he was showered with opportunity. Spielberg became a money-churning machine for the production companies, but not in the Michael Bay way. Post-70s Spielberg really showed us what he could do, as each of his films continued to be widely varied, but began to have a few thematic characteristics in common, such as sentimentality. More emotion began to flow into his films, starting with E.T, then The Color Purple, and then today’s target Empire of the Sun. Empire of the Sun is one film that seems to be right at the back of his catalog, maybe because of it’s smaller box-office success compared to his other efforts. Box-office earnings render ineffective against my will to view any film, so I decided to see what this film was all about. After watching Empire of the Sun, I think it deserves to rank amongst the best in Spielberg’s filmography.
Empire of the Sun’s visuals can be labelled with no word less than stunning. The cinematography in this film is absolutely incredible, taking advantage of the attractive setting to it’s full extent. But cinematographer Allen Daviau is not done there and makes every single shot a memorable one. He begins to enforce this fact straight away with the first few opening shots. Wooden coffins drift through the murky river, surrounded by wreaths of white flowers, all shown through an overhead shot with a perfect limited viewpoint that creates a beginning that tells you to expect nothing. The camera then gives you a picture of the international settlements of Shanghai, in just a few still shots, until arriving at a church, where we meet the central figure of this story. From the beautiful stained glass window, we are taken down the aisle to meet Jim, who is featured prominently in a choir performing the Welsh song ‘Suo Gân’ in a heavenly tone. Just this opening sequence alone blew my socks off, and made me more than excited to see what else Empire of the Sun could do.
Throughout the film, the simplicity and somberness of a sunrise and sunset is turned into the grand feeling of a new day coming. A perfect example of this is also right at the very beginning of the film, when the sun rises from pitch black to reveal the film title. If I can be bothered to mention the impressiveness of the title card, you best believe it’s good. In fact, the marvel of the sun makes for some of the most frame-worthy shots of Spielberg’s career. Many scenes are quite crowded with people and objects, and Daviau takes this obstacle into consideration.
If you read my Kingdom of Heaven review, I commented on the messy mise-en-scene in battle sequences, because it was unable to do one simple trick that this film does. Main character Jim is easily identifiable in crowds because of his constantly central placement in frame, as well as the mildly standout colors of his clothing. I was particularly impressed by this clothing decision in an earlier scene, which made him noticeable in crowds, without making him an unnaturally obvious sore thumb. Later, towards the end, a scene heavily involves the use of war aircraft, almost a sneak-peek at what Spielberg’s visions would later turn into in Saving Private Ryan. The one tiny gripe I have with the visuals is with the editing, which sometimes is too heavy on the fade effect, but to be honest, it really isn’t anything that will detract from your experience greatly.
This film is Steven Spielberg’s second war-focused film after 1979’s 1941. Empire of the Sun shows a huge improvement in mastering the genre since 1941, and in my controversial opinion, is on-par with Spielberg’s later film Saving Private Ryan storytelling-wise. Lets start with our central figure, Jim Graham, a spoiled upper-class student that treats his Chinese servants with disregard. Empire of the Sun is Jim’s journey as a rich, priviliged schoolboy, who is thrown into an underprivileged lifestyle due to the Japanese invasion of China. The personal transition that Jim goes through to live in the confines of the internment camp, is one that is practically opposite to his former life. This change in behavior is incredibly well brought on by Spielberg, who uses difficult situations and fragile relationships to push Jim towards a breaking point. Spielberg also uses a transition in character for the 1993 film Schindler’s List, which Empire of the Sun doesn’t quite match in terms of character. I guess that’s because Spielberg was a little wiser and experienced when he created Schindler’s List.
This film’s view on the Japanese invasion of China is perfect in it’s execution. Much like in Schindler’s List, it focuses on the war’s effect on a single human,. Well-executed characters are what supports war films more than anything. Black Hawk Down is a perfect example of a war film that put characters second, and lost a whole lot of impact because of it.
All emotional power in the movie comes from Jim alone. When Jim cries, you cry, when Jim is happy, you’re happy, it’s as simple as that. Christain Bale gives a seriously impressive debut, that surely ranks at the top when it comes to child actor performances. To act in such varied conditions in so many different ways must have been very difficult for a child who was 13 at the time.
Some scores just never let you go after listening to them. The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Star Wars, are three movies that are instantly recognizable by only listening to their scores. Empire of the Sun is another one of John William’s meticulously tailored efforts. Every note fits so well with what’s on screen, whether it be a tragedy, or a moment of grandeur. The standard film score arrangements of string instruments are incorporated with results that render it unpredictable at times, which was kind of cool. I’m not much of an expert on instruments, but some sort of pipe is used in some scenes at the internment camp, which seems to incorporate the music history of the China into the score, a nice touch. One can’t talk about the Empire of the Sun score without mentioning it’s staple track ‘Suo Gân’. This track is truly a masterpiece, and it further shows the emotional heft that opera vocals alone can accomplish in a film.
The movie doles out emotional punches on command throughout, but they are most effective in the second half, when the film believes you’ve gained enough sympathy for Jim and his changed ways. The film’s finale is a common one, but avoids feeling rehashed by removing elements, to instead feel more genuine (I won’t give any more details). In short, Empire of the Sun’s plot lives and breathes through Jim. I can only think of one short scene in the film that I thought was unnecessary, but it isn’t powerfully jarring to your view of the film’s events.