When the Child Wasn’t a Child
Keith Uhlich on Empire of the Sun

By the time of Empire of the Sun’s release in the winter of 1987, the father of the modern blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, had gifted his audiences with a number of impossible visions: hovering motherships, vengeful spirits, even, in his sorely underrated The Color Purple from two years prior, the subversive sight of an Old Hollywood melodrama with the standard race and gender roles reversed. But this adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s semiautobiographical novel is arguably his strangest object, a near-constant string of sounds and images that, even in their avowed verisimilitude, are possessed of a heightened unreality and contain scarring psychological depths.

The film begins with a Japanese cruiser pushing up the Yangtze, cutting through some floating coffins (remnants of struggles, of lives, that we will never see) as it sails into Shanghai. The cityscape emerges from behind the Japanese flag—a quintessentially loaded Spielberg image in the way it seems to simultaneously collapse and expand foreground and background. Segue to a boy, young Jim Graham (Christian Bale), dreaming (day-dreaming, more like it) in church as he sings solo on the soaring, sentimental Welsh lullaby “Suo Gân.” He’s the center of attention (his own), a son of England living abroad in Shanghai circa WWII, and he’s clearly burdened. More accurately—as evidenced by his get-me-out-of-here exhale in-between verses—he’s bored. He needn’t fret: a boy is never bored for long in a Spielberg picture. Michael Brody will come face to fin with Jaws. Barry Guiler will have his close encounter with the light behind the door. Elliott will meet E.T. And Jim? Jim gets a war.

Initially, the war is an arm’s-length proposition, something for Jim to relegate to the space outside the borders of the International Settlement, something to mythologize alongside the things in his toy chest, something to gawk at from the window of the car as it pushes through the crowds of Chinese peasants who will never be admitted to his privileged circle. Jim has always seen things from a remove—like the aircraft he loves so much that frequently buzz overhead, entirely out of reach. He’s protected, or thinks he is: When Jim mentions to an adult at a Christmas costume party that he’s become an atheist (a boy’s ideological caprice), you realize that, for all his imagination, he lacks belief in much outside his narrow purview. This casual admission comes right before the moment when Jim, dressed as a genie (the giver of wishes…and a life-upending trickster), runs into a nearby field where he finds a crashed fighter plane.

It’s a dead thing, hollow and harmless, another bauble for Jim to use on a whim. He pretends to shoot down one of his miniature gliders, which eludes him, and as he goes over a nearby hill to retrieve it, the fun and frolic suddenly cease. There in a trench sits a battalion of Japanese militants; there’s a brief flash where Jim regards them with the “mine, all mine!” awe usually reserved for one’s toy soldiers . . . until the troopers shoot quizzical glances back at him. It’s a classically Spielbergian exchange: Jim is as bizarre an object in his djinn getup as these grunts are in their rising-sun fatigues (who’s the alien in this scenario? Is there one?). A good many filmmakers would leave the joke at that, but Spielberg takes the facile culture clashing past the punchline when one of the infantrymen rises from the trench, placing himself on level ground with the boy. It’s the story’s psyche-splitting moment: what was once remote has become intimate, what was other is now familiar. Jim’s cloistered consciousness has been penetrated, and there’s no turning back.

This is what gives Spielberg’s film its power: the sense that everything we’re seeing subsequent to this intimate, yet epochal encounter is the product of an increasingly frenzied mind—a waking nightmare that cannot be shut out as it is experienced, only repressed when it is over (filed away, perhaps forever, in the subconscious). In a documentary on the Empire DVD, Ballard admits that the story, though shaped by his own time as a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp, is heavily fictionalized because he couldn’t be certain how many of his memories were actual and how many were imagined. Spielberg and his collaborators (from illumination maestro Allen Daviau, the director’s finest cinematographer after Janusz Kaminski, to the stunningly intuitive young Bale, in one of the greatest-ever child performances) take this to heart, never letting us feel completely grounded, approaching each scene with just enough off-kilter sensibility to unsettle.

Then, once Jim loses his parents in the rush of a forward-thrusting mob (a “See It Big” rethink of Ballard’s much terser, though no less disorienting, little boy lost scenario in the novel), the surreality becomes relentless. Here is Jim diminished before a building-sized Japanese poster for Gone with the Wind (fiction dwarfing fiction dwarfing fact). Here is the shadowy, piecemeal introduction of the boy’s manipulative elder confidant Basie (John Malkovich), photographed like a cynically wizened teddy bear-cum-voodoo doll (he’s a less honorable, though still doting iteration of android David’s devoted sidekick in Spielberg’s later masterpiece A.I.) Here is Jim’s chilling arrival at the internment camp, where his this-is-all-for-me hysteria reaches fever pitch before a trio of bemused Japanese soldiers and a fighter plane backlit by welding sparks. And there’s much more to come. Save for an opening credits crawl and a mid-movie supertitle, Spielberg never concretely identifies the where of the story—the locale, both physical and mental, is the constant that we’re always trying and failing to ascertain. So like shortsighted Jim, we hone in on the little details, however untrustworthy they may be.

Life-or-death value is ascribed to pairs of shoes and handfuls of marbles (best not lose those), while the eerily involuntary eye-twitch of a freshly dead woman—to whom Jim forcefully administers CPR—leads our juvenile protagonist to think he holds the power of resurrection. Always what’s in front, never what’s behind: Jim devastatingly admits in a later sequence that he can no longer remember what his parents look like. Memory has no hold for a boy stunted in day-to-day survival mode, with its hunger pangs and delirium masquerading as sanity. Is that American fighter pilot really waving at Jim from his P-51 (“Cadillac of the skies!”) as it bombs the internment camp? Do such distinctions matter when you’ve been swallowed whole by a world gone mad?

Consider the fate of the socialite Mrs. Victor, played by a superbly shell-shocked Miranda Richardson. At first a seemingly incidental character—one of the many whom Jim meets during his internment camp adventures—she slowly comes into focus during two extraordinarily powerful sequences. The first is a sex scene staggering in its abstraction and desperation: Mrs. Victor lies under her husband like a rag doll as shots of intertwined hands and tentative kisses alternate with Jim’s cryptic what-am-I-seeing? stare, and distant explosives light up the nighttime sky (this is the controversial Munich climax in embryo). The other takes place near the war’s end, after the prisoners have marched from the internment camp to a stadium filled with upper-class bric-a-brac (pianos, cars, chandeliers)—it would hardly be surprising if Buñuel’s bourgeoisie were trying to sit down to a meal somewhere nearby. Jim attends to Mrs. Victor, letting her lap up water from his cupped hands, indulging her request to stay where they are rather than go searching for food. (“It’s better here,” she says, blessedly relieved of lucidity.) There’s still danger around, but Jim knows how they can make it through the night: “Pretend you’re dead, Mrs. Victor.” Jim falls to the ground with a boyish innocence that he’s mostly been lacking in the movie’s second half. And Mrs. Victor does the same—except she’s not pretending.

Now playtime (even a child’s survivalist notions of it) has been fully soiled by death. When Jim wakes, there is no glimmer of purity in his gaze, no belief, however misguided, that he has any sort of power to affect anything. So the spark moves outward and upward—to the sky above, which blindingly brightens. This is the point when the movie comes back to earth; Spielberg makes it clear to the audience (lucid as we can ever be) that we’re seeing the aftershocks of one of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Jim thinks otherwise: It is actually Mrs. Victor’s soul, traveling to heaven. The final tragedy—the war has even contaminated Jim’s fragile sense of the divine.

Jesus wept. But there will be no Lazarus-like rebirth of the boy we knew. Just a transition, slow and exhausting (one of Spielberg’s finest third-act dirges), to some place beyond Jim’s not-so-uniquely tumultuous adolescence: a last mad gasp at significance when he tries to heal one of Hirohito’s wounded minions, barely older than himself; a liberating jaunt around the abandoned internment camp (the man-to-be taking a final look at the stage on which his youth has played out) that is interrupted by a gaggle of American soldiers who seem to materialize from the Sam Fuller movie across the lot; a reunion with his parents, whom he indeed doesn’t recognize, and who regard him with an upsetting suspicion (“Who is this person?” they seem to be saying with their tentative embraces) that any grown child can understand.

And then, finally, only one thing left to do: Go to sleep. Close your eyes. Tomorrow’s a new day.