Steven Spielberg's 'Empire of the Sun' is a gigantic film, filled with the grandeur of the Orient and the fury of worlds at war, seen through the wide-open eyes of an 11-year-old child.
To young Jim Graham, played by Christian Bale, the world is a chaotic, crowded and forbidding place outside the safety of the upper-class British community in Shanghai. But the world is also one in which he can almost magically survive by keeping his dreams close at hand.
Spielberg has once again proven his skill at directing films whose heroes are vulnerable but gritty children. And his reverence for genuine background -- this is the first major Hollywood studio production ever to shoot in China -- adds to the lush quality of this anti-war tale based on the true-life experiences of author J.G. Ballard, who chronicled his childhood in a World War II prison camp in the novel of the same title.
'It was quite a harrowing experience writing 'Empire of the Sun,'' Ballard said. And that sense of horror carries through poignantly in the Spielberg film. Unfortunately, the childlike quality of the movie is also its downfall.
Young Jim is separated from his parents when the Japanese march into Shanghai on Dec. 8, 1941. He is rescued from starvation by Basie, played by John Malkovich, and Frank, played by Joe Pantoliano, but eventually is taken with his new-found 'friends' to the Soochow Creek prison camp. There, the youngster learns the survival skills of an adult, but maintains his innocence in the face of cruelty, deprivation and death.
While at the camp, Jim makes friends with a young Japanese flier in training at the airbase adjacent to the prison camp. The two share a love of flying and youth and it is their exuberance and hope that make the most powerful anti-war statement.
The trouble with 'Empire of the Sun' is not in its grand vision, or poignant drama or childlike point of view. What seems to go wrong is that, like a child, the film just keeps rambling along from one incident to another until it can finally end because the child is welcomed home again.
Where an adult point-of-view would have helped to hold together the powerful emotions in this film, instead the child at the heart and soul of the picture is allowed to roam, and the audience is left feeling helplessly adrift along with the film's young hero.
There were at least four times during the film that Jim overcomes some particularly harrowing experience and his exultation seems like a logical place to end the tale -- which is, simply put, one of survival. Instead, the youngster, like Ulysses, is given more travails to overcome, and finally, it is simply exhausting to watch the incessant assaults and inevitable triumphs.
Nevertheless, 'Empire of the Sun' is a breathtaking movie in its scope and energy. It's just that true to its childlike quality, this film is just a little too over-anxious to get its point across.
This movie is rated PG. The film contains violence.