Perhaps if I’d read J.G. Ballard’s source novel, I’d be a little more in tune with Empire of the Sun, but I don’t think a movie should be reliant on the viewer’s familiarity with the book on which it’s based. The two things are very different beasts. My central problem with the film lies — as indicated earlier — with the main character, Jim (Bale). If he is supposed to be likable, then the film has failed for me. In the first stretches of the story, he strikes me as a combination of spoiled, over-privileged brat and what we used to call “backwards.” He seems completely unaware of what’s going on around him to a spectacular degree, and while I understand he’s just a kid, I think the film goes too far in his utter obliviousness. Setting aside the perspective of time — and it’s hard not to see the adult Bale in the 13-year-old version of him — it comes down to Spielberg, whose take on childhood always seems overly sentimental. Spielberg reminds me of the doting parent who comes calling and lets his child ransack your house, thinking it’s all so terribly cute. This is a stumbling block for me with the movie, especially the first half hour. I freely concede that Jim becomes less grating as the story progresses.
As a film overall, it’s hard to fault Empire of the Sun on technical grounds. It’s a masterful piece of work — so polished that you feel you could see yourself in its shiny reflection. It also feels — and this is not necessarily a downside — like a product of old Hollywood. By this I mean, it’s a film that almost might have been made by MGM under Louis B. Mayer. I actually think it might be profitable to think of Spielberg more as a producer than a director. There’s something too programmed about it all — a sense of fretting over how this will play in Dubuque — for my comfort. (Maybe 1941 cured Spielberg of risk-taking, which is not entirely a bad thing, considering 1941.) But there’s clearly a market for this approach, so it’s foolish to simply dismiss it as reactionary Hollywoodizing. It’s not like you don’t know what you’re getting into.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Empire of the Sun Sunday, June 7, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.