Empire of the Sun (1987) – Steven Spielberg

Spielberg’s next project was an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s memoir of his time as a boy growing up in Japanese occupied China during World War II. Christian Bale, in one of his earliest roles, plays young Jamie Graham, an arrogant young English boy who is fascinated by planes, and whose life is upended in the invasion, and must learn to survive on his own when he is separated from his parents.

With a beautiful score by John Williams, Spielberg guides the camera alongside Jamie as he struggles to feed himself, surrender to the Japanese, and find his family.

When I was younger watching this, I never really noticed how much of a brat the character is at the beginning of the film, but he really is, but through the course of the film all of those things that make Jamie Jamie are stripped away, he becomes a survivor, with a sole focus.

Along the way, he comes across Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano) a pair of American hustlers living on the fringes of society and trying to make a buck any way they can. Eventually, Jamie falls in with the pair, and they all end up in a POW camp, where Basie makes a bit of a name and position for himself amongst the Americans, and Jamie comes of age.

Beautifully shot, Empire of the Sun has a powerful emotional resonance as we see the experience of war and the prisoner camps through the eyes of a child.

The film garnered six Oscar nominations, Cinematography, Art Direction/Set Direction, Costume Design, Sound, Film Editing and Score. It was beat out in every category by The Last Emperor. But it remains a powerful watch, gorgeously shot, and has an immediacy to it that fills the frame.

This is a movie that I’ve grown to appreciate over the years, when I was a teen when this came out, I picked up the soundtrack right away, and knew all the music cues before I even got a chance to see the film. I mean, come on, it’s John Williams. It also helped to have the score to listen to as I read the original book on which the film was based. I was ‘that kid’ in school.

The movie itself didn’t wow me very much at the time, I wanted more adventure, but over the years, it has really connected with me, I love seeing the way British elitism tried to maintain its foothold in Shanghai, and how they kept that stiff upper lip even in the direst of circumstances, and most important of all, the character arc for Jamie.

I love how Spielberg takes his time with the film, letting the viewer settle into Jamie’s life and experiences. It was great to rewatch this one, and this journey through Spielberg’s films that I haven’t talked about before simply reminds me why he is one of my all time favorite directors.

Can’t wait to see what’s next!

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