Empire of the Spirit

Reprinted from Flashfilms, October 2015.

Here’s a heady piece that I remember writing in a red frenzy of emotion in England for a film review that Judy and Don printed in their Steven Spielberg Film Society newsletter, issue #30, in May 1988. I didn’t waste much time explaining this was Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel – about a British boy cast adrift in war-torn Shanghai – probably because most of the SSFS readers were aware what this was all about, with Spielberg going out on another limb in his adaptation of that amazing book. I also recall the movie really hit a nerve with me back then, and still takes me back to a time and place where I could identify very strongly with the young protagonist, played by a 13-year-old Christian Bale, as a somewhat rootless alien adrift in a frightening world.

Empire of the Spirit by Joe Fordham (May 1988) Aside from being Spielberg's third masterpiece and, without a doubt, one of the most staggering examples of recent modern cinema, Empire of the Sun encapsulates the powerful emotive feelings of the last frame of E.T. and develops them in the same way that E.T. developed the feelings at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Neary saw his life crumble about him as he struggled to fulfill his implanted vision, to contact and finally leave with the E.T.s. Elliot finds himself in equal trouble but his problem is in hanging on to his own E.T. It takes great courage but he finally lets him go. During the shooting of Empire of the Sun, this is how Spielberg himself summed up Jim Graham's plight: "This is really about death of innocence, the death of one's childhood. Which is kind of the opposite of the stuff I usually do. I usually celebrate the kind of perseverance and preservation of innocence. But this one's a really different story about how it takes an entire war to turn a young boy into a man.” Jim (Christian Bale) is an alien, a hybrid piece of cozy England, grown under glass amongst the squalor of urban Shanghai. When a seething ants’ nest of screaming refugees tears him apart from his old life, Basie (John Malkovich) and then Soochow internment camp inspire Jim to realize his own individual potential, ennobling his spirit.

After J.G. Ballard's opening prologue narration, the chillingly beautiful opening sequence with Suo Gan and the introduction of Jim's home life, there is a moment where Jim's parents are tucking him into bed. This is Jim's last night of his childhood, a moment he will later try to preserve in a Norman Rockwell painting clipped from Saturday Evening Post. As his mother kisses him, there is a subtle lap dissolve. The picture shifts but you wonder if it really happened. Jim has just been wondering, “Maybe we're God's dream and he is ours." This dissonance between Jim and his universe gives the film a powerful and ethereal quality. It affects us in the manner that Stanley Kubrick was striving for in 2001, as a uniquely cinematic experience. Small examples of this: picture Jim seeing the talcum powder avalanched over his parents’ dressing table. The powder trickles, he sees a footprint, smiles – then he sees others, handprints, finger marks clawing. Music! Or the arch of the Shanghai stadium.... Music! Or Basie seen as just a stubbled jaw and grinning teeth. Or the sudden swoop of Jim's paper airplane. Or – music! – "Cadillac of the skies!" "Oil and Cordite!" Jim leaping, screaming in pain, anger and exultation. And later, against sunlight, "I can bring them back. I can bring them all back."

Tom Stoppard's crisp and witty script, Ballard's brilliant story, John Williams' searing and breathtaking score (with Chopin in eloquent counterpoint), Allen Daviau and Norman Reynolds’ stunning perfect colors, and the honesty and zap of Christian Bale, John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson combine to lasting effect under Spielberg's hand. Now we see what he was leading up to visually in his Amazing Stories The Mission. The Color Purple, too, seems like a rehearsal in terms of story and scope. This also was a ‘really different story’ but Empire is a more vital, groundbreaking film. He is back with Williams and back with more familiar obsessions -- and some new ones.

"I learned a new word today. Atom Bomb." The horror and the destruction around young Jim ignites in a flash, crystallizing his loneliness and shattering the war. How does this leave him? He is British, but has never been there. He put his trust in Basie but was betrayed. He has grown up with ‘the enemy’ but never felt hostile towards them. He is simply alone and so he must go on –- this he has learnt. The liberation ends his journey for now. Exsultate Justi. He is alive.

In facing death and the bomb, Spielberg finds life. The giant G.I.s that find Jim pedaling circuits around the bombed-out prison camp are amazed. "I surrender," says Jim, with a libation of Jerzee condensed milk. He is alive and an individual, but he is human, he wants to be loved, even though it might be hard at first to recognise his parents. Earlier, with an echo of the closing shot of The Sugarland Express, Jim throws away his suitcase. This is the moment of ‘death of innocence’ that Spielberg was talking about. It is a fleeting moment and Jim does not realise it until some time later, but we are reminded by the closing moments of the film that this is where we have been. The journey has been painful and frightening for both Jim and us, but the final experience is uplifting. It is impossible to trap here on paper. Listen to the score! See the film! It is lyrical, and alive, and an example of the promise of hope and light that Spielberg’s previous works have glimpsed. And that is not to denigrate those works, far from it! Spielberg's career is just continuing to explore the delicate balance between the intellectual and the emotional. Part of the glory of Empire of the Sun is how well this succeeds.


Imagery © Warner Bros. Pictures; apart from ‘Me and the Bomb’ photo by Chris Stiles Reprinted with permission, SSFS © May 1988 ISSN 0883-6094