Spielberg's first stab at a World War II drama is an odd duck of a film. Beginning it's production in the same way that Jaws did, Spielberg pushed to direct the film after originally signing on to produce for David Lean.
So begins a pseudo trilogy of World War II dramas from Spielberg (the others being Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan).
Empire of the Sun is an attempted epic in scope. The story follows a young boy over the course of several years as he goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai to becoming a prisoner of war in Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center. Spielberg has actually gone on record to call the film his most profound work on the loss of innocence and though definitely see that that's the film's message it does too much meandering to really drive the point home efficiently.
The film clocks in at 154 minutes. The first act of the film grabs up about 45 of those minutes. In that time Jamie (Christian Bale) loses touch with his family when they're separated in a riot, fends for himself by squatting in the abandoned mansions of family friends and then finally surrenders when starvation seems the only other option. Somehow though the film manages to be completely uninteresting though all of that. The riot sequence has plenty of fire fights, and war machines but it all plays out as very stale. Spielberg hardly captures the horror of a child being separated from his parents. The whole film really does lack for any real emotional attachment. The problem is that outcome would be brilliant if it were intended. If I felt that detached walking out of a story about a boy losing everything including his own sense of humanity and the director was just standing at the theater exit laughing maniacally, I'd adore that film forever.
Unfortunately thats just not the case with Empire. Late in the film the base is "saved" by a number of US planes. Bale's character (and I'll say now before I forget that Bale does a wonderful job in this film and without his great performance it'd be a total loss) after having been abandoned by everyone in his life, and learning that stealing from the dying to save the living is part of this new existence has a conniption when he actually sees the American fighter planes. He shouts and screams with excitement like only a child can do. Its the most moving moment in the film. The problem is it doesn't work with the story that Spielberg is trying to tell. Bale's character loves planes with all his heart and though I'll never stomp on a child's happiness I really wanted to see him ignore the planes. To see them soar over his head and instead of being happy, he continues about his routine of survival.
I have to make an aside about John Malkovich in this film. His performance is wonderful as always but in a movie that really defines vanilla his character is one of the grayest complex people I've ever witnessed on film. I really wish the story moved passed Bale's youth and into his adulthood so that we could see more of Malkovich in person and more of him develop in Jamie.
I'm really ripping on the film here but I must reinforce that it's hardly a loss. Spielberg's craft is the best I've seen it so far in this chronological run through his films. He tells a long(winded) story and manages total control over some huge settings and character's. The amateur mistakes of Jaws and the campy nature of the Indiana Jones films have been left by the wayside to make a very professional-looking war epic. The trouble definitely resides in a script that keeps telling the audience it should be feeling but never really works hard enough to illicit that much emotion out of anyone.