Empire of the Sun was Steven Spielberg's second attempt, after The Color Purple in 1985, to transition from his decade of huge success in genre adventures to a become respected artist equally capable at delivering serious dramas. While The Color Purple was visually stunning, and contained powerful moments, it might have been a subject better left to someone else, as Spielberg struggled to avoid slipping caricature and oddball wacky humor into an otherwise severe narrative. Empire of the Sun, however, was a perfect vehicle through which a reputed 'grown-up kid' like Spielberg might develop, as its story — a privileged adolescent boy is abruptly thrown into the upheaval of a war-torn country and must use his wits to survive — allowed him to continue indulging his sense of childlike awe while finding within himself the adult perspective required for a broader understanding of emotionally difficult material.
A young Christian Bale stars as Jim Graham, the son of a British industrialist in Shanghai, whose posh lifestyle is only marginally affected by the threat of war that looms over China from Imperial Japan — Jim admires Japanese aircraft with no sense of its threat; to him, the idea of war is a comic book adventure or a dog-fight with model planes — until the moment of invasion. In their race to escape the only home that Jim has ever known, he is separated from his parents, and, at first, fends for himself, scrounging for food amongst the deserted homes in his wealthy neighborhood and, later, in a Japanese prison camp for enemy non-combatants.
The director's two most obvious assets in Empire of the Sun are Bale, who is hauntingly perfect in a demanding role for a young actor, and cinematographer Allen Daviau, who seems to know just how far to push Spielberg's colorful pop-art canvas version of history without totally losing verisimilitude — except for the few times that Spielberg's visual imagination veers too far into cartoony iconography. Some of this is excusable as filtered through Jim's somewhat hyperactive point-of-view, but the worst moments in the film come late, and are accompanied by contrived appeals to emotion that suggest Spielberg's uncertainty about how to end a serious movie that lacks a showstopping special effects set-piece. Composer John Williams turns in sometimes soaring and mostly fine score with just a little too much whimsy that oversells the lightness of a few scenes. Tom Stoppard's adaptation of the memoir by J.G. Ballard smartly lacks Stoppard's usual sharp wit and clever wordiness, giving Spielberg a solid structural framework with vast room to tell the story visually, and for Bale to feel his performance rather than speak it.
While Empire of the Sun is uneven at times — on occasion, Spielberg slips into "fun" action and bits that belong in Temple of Doom rather than a movie about historical strife — it's also full of moments of varying scope that show a keen melding of Spielberg's sense of visual excitement on a grand scale with intimate personal struggles. Really, it's not much different from the kind of big-and-small work Spielberg had done previously with masterful effect on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Empire of the Sun is the first evidence that he would be able to translate the same skillset to to real people in more sensitive situations. Spielberg still shows a tendency to become so seduced by the potential for spectacle that he is unable to to execute the emotional maneuvers required by the script, and, as "childhood experience of war" movies go, it looks a bit like fluff next to something like Elem Klimov's harrowing Come and See, but Spielberg would save confronting the more direct horrors of war for the next decade, and this is an important step toward getting there.
Empire of the Sun was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by ur-Flickcharter Nathan Chase. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #32 / 1543 (98%), making it his third favorite movie out of 21 directed by Steven Spielberg. It ranked on my Flickchart at #751 (81%), where it's my #8 out of 25 Spielberg movies.