Empire of the Sun: Spielberg’s film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel features an excellent cast including Christian Bale as 11-year-old Jamie “Jim” Graham and John Malkovich as his “surrogate father” Basie. Miranda Richardson plays Mrs. Victor. Ben Stiller can be seen in a small part as Basie’s pal Dainty.
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1937, young Jim is seperated from his wealthy parents and becomes a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp. As a preliminary study to his masterpiece Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg tackles the topics of war, racism and imprisonment. Jim experiences the consequences of ideas that are based on class and race differences and has to struggle for sheer survival behind the barbed wire of the camp.
Whereas Spielberg has celebrated childhood and childlike curiosity in movies such as Close Encounters and E.T., he now feels “attracted to the idea that this was a death of innocence, not an
attenuation of childhood, which by my own admission and everybody’s
impression of me is what my life has been. This was the opposite of Peter Pan.” He adds: “I made a movie to satisfy me, not the audience. It’s as dark as I allowed myself to get.”
Director of Photography Allen Daviau translates Tom Stoppard‘s sublime screenplay into stunning images. After a year of negotiations, the Chinese government grants permission for a three-week shoot in Shanghai. Empire of the Sun is the first American film shot in Shanghai since the 1940s.
Initially, Spielberg is not ready to take on the challenge and plans to produce the film, with David Lean directing – but Lean declines his offer because he can’t seem to relate to Ballard’s novel.
Spielberg finally takes the helm, he offers then unknown Mark Rylance a role. Rylance remembers:
“I took the part and then backed out. […] It wasn’t because of
him. I was offered something in the theatre I wanted to do more.”
Spielberg’s lyrical film adaptation is met with mixed reactions from critics and audiences who (1) in most cases have not read the novel, (2) expect something more in the direction of his previous blockbuster movies, (3) are overwhelmed by its complex story and issues.
In his positive review, Richard Corliss (TIME) concludes that Spielberg “has met the demands of the epic form with a mature spirit and wizardly
technique. Spielberg has dreamed of flying before, and this time he
earns his wings.”
The film costs $35 million and earns $66.7 million in its worldwide release but is considered a box office disappointment (by Spielberg‘s standards).
Empire of the Sun remains one of the most underrated Spielberg films to this date.