Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The MidAisle Critique: Rewind Review 001: Empire of the Sun (1987)

Welcome to a brand new column for the MidAisle Critique simply entitled "Rewind Review". As the title implies, I will be divulging each of these blogs to films that you can pick up at your local video rental store (or netflix if you prefer), and maybe deserve a second look due to their age. This review will be conducted in a slightly different manner than "Return to Form" (which will hereafter be called "From the Cinema"), and will thus have a recommendation section, as well as information regarding actors, directors, etc...

For my first Rewind Review, I will be discussing Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987).

It is difficult to say just how hard it is to work with children in film. I have got to say that director's certainly have a challenge in getting kids to emote exactly how they want to portray a scene. I am not saying that child actors are dumb; I am merely implying that child actors don't have the same experience as "regular actors" do, and thus have to try harder to come across as genuine. Sometimes however, you get the sense that the child actor on screen is 100% real, and the power that comes from that is simply incredible. Some good examples of that are Saorsie Ronan in Atonenment, Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. 
Christian Bale simply put: annihilated all of my expectations for a child actor. The tones, emotions, and actions that he inhibits make this film great. If not for the power of his performance, the film might not have been as interesting. The supporting cast certainly does add to the story; but the film centers on Bale's performance, and does so without sacrificing the sets, the scope, or the direction. I disagree with Roger Ebert's assessment that the film lacks direction; because I feel that Spielberg is doing more than creating a realized escapism for young Jim (Bale), he is creating the transformation from innocence to immersion to acceptance to understanding. The escapism that Jim uses to rise above his situation does not define him, as much as it allows him to become something more than a lost child. He becomes a man that knows no allegiance to the old ways (he has never been outside of China, and so native Britannia is just a bedtime story), no semblance of what life should be composed of outside of his situation (he eventually loses all interest in pretending that nothing has happened and surrenders), and no idea as to what side he truly belongs on (Japanese, British, American). Speilberg uses the motif of magic, and of discovery to give Jim a unique coming of age expedition, and through the course of the film, is never afraid to allow Jim to discover the truth about the world on his own. There is virtually nothing that contains Bale, save for the prison walls; but even then, he believes that the world outside is nothing compared to the world he has created within.
The film does suffer from being a little thin in a few areas, as well as never clearly giving some characters much needed screentime; but Speilberg does what he can to create a solid atmosphere... and it does decently enough. I would have liked to have seen a few more solid scenes involving the Japanese commander and Bale; but I suppose that wasn't really necessary for the story.

The best scenes in the film revolve around Bale, with out particular heartbreaking scene involving his separation, and another involving a Japanese friend on the other side of the fence. 

While not the best WWII film from Spielberg, Empire of the Sun is definitely a must see for any fan of Speilberg, or even Christian Bale. Nigel Havers turns in a good performance, as does John Malkovich as Basie (Bales overseer and employer of sorts), and a young Ben Stiller even shows up to show off his pre stardom acting chops (they aren't too refined).

Overall, I give the film an 80% based on Bale's performance and Speilberg's direction.

Empire of the Sun (1987)
D: Steven Spielberg
A: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantiliano
Nominated for 5 Oscars.