Empire of the Sun: The loss of innocence

23 Dec

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Truth- as much as I despise a lot of Steven Spielberg’s movies and the mess he helped created by inventing summer blockbusters mentality, he’s done some remarkable movies. I grew up with his movies, either the ones he directed or produced. I loved ‘The Goonies’ like an extension of myself, I shed a tear when watching ‘E.T’ for the first time, I shat myself dry while watching ‘The Poltergeist’ . Whatever else you wanna call him, the man knows how your inner child wonder works, he’s got a gift for it.

This turns out as much as a blessing and a curse.

He knows how to make movies to please the general audience and he’s done it with uncanny virtuoso abilities. The man knows his camera movements/special effects as much as he knows what makes the audience tick. The problem arises when ‘serious’ filmmakers/critics/audience started to disregard Spielberg as a filmmaker who didn’t have anything personal to say apart from making children who grew up in the suburbs looking cool.

Based on a novel by J.G Ballard, ‘Empire of the Sun’ tells the story of Jim Graham (Christian Bale) a British boy with a fixation to military aviation- Japanese Zero fighter plane, who grew up in a wealthy family in Shanghai in 1941. Jim’s world is insulated from the harsh reality of China’s conflict with Japan, as he lives in an international district with the rest of wealthy expats. When Japan invades Shanghai, Jim is separated from his parents. Lost and confused, he goes back home only to find his house looted and abandoned. He decides to wait as long as he can, believing his parents will come to get him.

Desperate, hungry and no parents in sight, Jim leaves his house and soon finds himself wandering the streets of Shanghai where he meets Basie (John Malkovich), a seedy opportunist but charming American and his side kick, Frank (Joe Pantoliano). They take him under his wings, believing they could be highly compensated for returning Jim to his parents and Jim could show them rich people houses which they could loot. But they get arrested by the Japanese and got sent to an internment camp with other Europeans/Americans for years, and this basically where Jim grows up. He treats the camp as if it was his personal playground to substitute his lost family.

All the trademarks of Spielbergian are here; the swooping camera capturing the majestic of Shanghai in the 1940’s, the world seen through the wonderment of a child’s eyes (who grew up in the suburb and has his world turned upside down), the grandeur vision of a camp which established a world with its own set of rules and hierarchy. Yet there is something a bit off about it. Whereas in previous Spielberg’s films, the childlike wonder always managed to conquer the pessimism of adulthood, in ‘Empire of the Sun’ that wonderment eventually has to wither and die. It’s not about a celebration of innocence, it’s about the loss of one.

It’s as if Spielberg tries to create a surreal fable of what happens when war occurs and invades childhood and moulds a new template in their minds. A child will always be a child wherever they are but how they see the world growing up in wartime will fundamentally change them inside. It is quiet revealing to see how Jim’s perception of reality shifted but at the same time part of him has not completely gone out yet. Jim’s boyish fantasy of becoming a Japanese fighter pilot before he got separated from his parents and his lack of awareness with the outside world symbolizes the insular world of every boy’s fantasy to create his own world. But what happens when that world collides with the harsh reality of war and in some warped way what you fantasize becomes closer to reality?

This revelation is shown in one of the best Spielberg’s montages he’s ever made; Jim being taken to the camp for the first time by a truck. He gets off from the truck along with other westerners. He sees something in the distance that catches his eyes. Transfixed, he keeps walking towards it. He walks purposely among the thousands Chinese hard laborers working around him. He sees it for the first time, the object of his dream, a real Japanese Zero plane in front of him. He walks slowly, touches it gently. His dream has come true and now he has to wake up.

This approach is what makes ‘Empire of the Sun’ stands out among Spielberg’s films. A multitude of different worlds slowly enveloping one another to create a complex damaged view of lost innocence. ‘Empire of the Sun’ represents a milestone in Spielberg’s career because to put it simply, Spielberg finally grew up. And to me the start of his maturity makes this his finest film.



2 Responses to “Empire of the Sun: The loss of innocence”

  1. antobj February 20, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

    dan setelah kejadian itu .. Jim Graham beserta keluarga pindah ke Amerika dan tinggal di kota besar yang bernama gotham, setelah bapak-ibunya di bunuh di sebuah gang setelah nonton teater ia berubah menjadi psycopat gila yang belajar ninja dari seorang penjahat besar dari asia….. mmmmm

    • joegievano February 21, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

      pantesan dia engga stabil gitu

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