Friday, May 19, 2006

Empire of the Sun

1987, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

Spielberg takes so much flak - especially from "serious" critics - for his sentimentality and infantilization that his telling of more adult, complex tales often comes as something of a surprise, no more so than in Empire of the Sun, a pretty clear-eyed adaptation of the rigorously unsentimental J.G. Ballard autobiographical novel. The theme, ultimately, is that of the descent of man, particularly in the prison camp context, where even otherwise 'good' people make moral compromises in order to maxmize their own chances of survival (a theme that doesn't really appear in Schindler's List, although the topic would be considerably more explosive in the context of the Holocaust). Despite Spielberg's clear affection for his youthful protagonist, Jim (Christian Bale) descends as far as anyone; the skills he acquires to charm his way out of any situation come at a heavy psychological price (indeed, by the end of he film, he seems like a literal shell), where the notion of loyalty to something beyond oneself is entirely subsumed by the need to get through each day. Even where Spielberg veers towards mawkishness, the film is kept on the rails through strong supporting performances, and the inherent interest in this relatively little-known corner of World War II history. Christian Bale, incidentally, is extraordinary.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States