Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano, Leslie Phillips, Masatô Ibu, Emily Richard, Rupert Frazer, Ben Stiller
J.G. Ballard (novel, "Empire of the Sun"), Tom Stoppard
To survive in a world at war, he must find a strength greater than all the events that surround him.
Based on J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, tells the story of a boy, James Graham, whose privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a captured Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim attempts to reconstruct his former life, all the while bringing spirit and dignity to those around him.
$1.314 million on 225 screens.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Castillian Spanish Dolby Digital Stereo
French Dolby Digital Stereo
Italian Dolby Digital Stereo
German Dolby Digital Stereo
Latin Spanish Dolby Digital Stereo
Runtime: 153 min.
Release Date: 11/13/2012
• “The China Odyssey” Documentary
• “Warner At War” Documentary
• Hardcover Book
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Empire Of The Sun [Blu-Ray Book] (1987)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 28, 2012)
Some of Steven Spielberg’s “lesser” titles deserve their obscurity. 1989’s Always is a cute but insubstantial flick, while 1997’s Amistad is excessively “politically correct” and pushy.
1987’s Empire of the Sun, on the other hand, offers a more complex picture. It never reaches the heights of Spielberg’s best flicks, and I don’t believe Spielberg will ever create a drama that tops his action/fantasy fare. Just as Woody Allen has created some good dramas that don’t equal his comedies, Spielberg’s true gift is for escapist works; his other films may be solid, but they don’t reach the transcendence of Spielberg’s action and/or fantasy efforts.
However, Empire goes to the top of his serious works. While not a totally successful piece, the movie provides a surprisingly rich and unsentimental look at a portion of World War II little known to most Americans. It’s not as broad and crowd-pleasing as Saving Private Ryan and it packs less of an obvious punch, but it still provides a compelling and distinctive affair.
Set in China, the movie follows young Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) throughout the first half of the 1940s. At the film’s start, we see him as a boy who lives an exceedingly privileged life. His father’s (Rupert Frazer) a successful businessman with many connections in the British section of China, and Jamie has a cushy little lifestyle going for himself.
All of that ends after December 7, 1941. Following the official start of World War II, the Japanese invade areas of China, and Jamie becomes separated from his parents. Eventually he starts to starve and as he scrounges around the streets, he meets Frank (Joe Pantoliano), who rescues him from a nasty kid. From there Jamie meets mercenary extraordinaire Basie (John Malkovich). After a rocky start, Basie lets the kid tag along with the pair. Eventually they end up in a camp operated by the Japanese, and there they spend most of the film, as Jim copes with this spare and dismal life while the war rages outside of these parameters.
Empire largely dispenses with much of a plot, as it becomes more of an experiential piece. Interesting, Spielberg sticks almost exclusively with Jim’s point of view throughout the tale, a move that apparently confused some viewers; from what I’ve seen, many took some of the flick’s events - like a fighter pilot who waves to Jim as he flies past - literally. Clearly we weren’t meant to view these in such a manner, and it’s that approach that lends the movie an unusual tone.
As I watched Empire, I often thought that it seemed as though the flick depicted the Japanese with too much respect. They treated many of their prisoners and opponents in a brutal manner, and while the film gives us a hint of that, it seems to portray them in an oddly positive light much of the time. However, when one understands the point of view portrayed, it makes more sense. Despite the atrocities doled out by the Japanese, Jim still saw them in a romantic vein, largely due to his fascination with their soldiers.
Despite the potential for a romanticized tone, I think Spielberg keeps Empire remarkably free of sentiment. His work is often criticized for its allegedly schmaltzy attitudes; I don’t agree with some of those assessments, but that reputation developed nonetheless.
In any case, I find Empire to largely lack those attitudes, as it comes across with reasonable bluntness within its constraints. Since it uses Jim’s point of view, the film can get away with a less-than-realistic tone, but it manages to avoid the pitfalls of a sappy attitude that might have occurred.
Much of the thanks for that results from Bale’s simply outstanding performance as Jim. Only 13 at the time of Empire’s filming, Bale provides an astonishing piece of work as he takes Jim through a myriad of situations and attitudes. He starts as a bratty, spoiled boy and progresses into a survivor who goes through various stages of confidence and capabilities.
Bale handles all of these with remarkable aplomb and creates a diverse, believable and gripping portrait of the boy. Not only does he manage to hold his own, but also Bale carries the movie and takes it to a higher level. Bale appears in almost every shot of Empire, and he holds up his end of the bargain well. Why Oscar overlooked him remains bizarre to me, but in those anti-Spielberg years, it doesn’t surprise me.
My complaints about Empire remain few. For one, Jim doesn’t seem to age much during the film. I think he’s supposed to be 15 by the end, but he sure doesn’t look it. However, I suppose his malnutrition during the camp internment would result in stunted growth, so his lack of development isn’t totally off-course.
I also feel the ending includes far too many big coincidences. These don’t harm the film for me, but they push credulity to a large degree; even if we consider the stretches allowable due to Jim’s point of view, some of these elements seem like a little too much.
I initially saw Empire of the Sun on video in the late Eighties, and I didn’t much care for it. I don’t know why that was, for my recent screening of it shows that the film offers a rich and compelling experience. Boasting self-assured and unsentimental direction from Steven Spielberg and an absolutely top-notch lead performance by Christian Bale, Empire stands as probably Spielberg’s best non-fantasy flick and it deserves a much wider audience than it has received.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B+/ Bonus B
Empire of the Sun appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Across the board, this was a pleasing presentation.
Sharpness usually appeared strong. A couple of minor instances of softness occurred, but these were rare and modest. The film almost always looked nicely crisp and detailed. No problems with jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, and edge haloes remained absent. With a natural layer of grain, I didn’t sense any heavy-handed digital noise reduction, and print flaws failed to mar the presentation.
To fit the period setting, colors seemed subdued for the most part, and they worked fine within those parameters. I felt the hues looked well defined and strong, as they demonstrated clean tones with no signs of bleeding, noise, or other concerns. Black levels also appeared dark and rich, while shadow detailed consistently seemed acceptably opaque but never excessively dark; all low-light sequences showed good visibility. Across the board, the movie delivered an appealing image.
The film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack also seemed solid, as the soundfield appeared broad and engaging. Most of the audio stayed with a forward emphasis, as the front channels showed good spread and activity. Music demonstrated clean delineation and good stereo separation, while effects seemed broad and well developed. Those elements moved nicely across the speakers, and they created a lively and vibrant presence. At times the mix sounded a little artificial; for example, a scene inside a clamoring crowd felt forced and staged. However, most of the film showed a reasonably natural feel.
Surround usage appeared positive. Most of the movie featured audio that stuck with general reinforcement of the music and effects, though these provided a satisfying dimension. During action sequences, however, the rear channels came to life nicely. Various vehicles traveled neatly from front to rear - or vice versa - and the fighter planes offered fine split-surround elements as well. As a whole, the soundfield delivered a good experience for a movie of this vintage.
Audio quality also seemed very good for its era. Dialogue consistently sounded distinct and natural, as I discerned no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects showed their age at times, as they could sound somewhat thin and flat, but they usually appeared rather clear and accurate, and they lacked any signs of distortion. Explosions and other loud noises demonstrated fairly substantial oomph.
Music came across as consistently bright and clear, but I felt much of the score lacked much depth. Some of the percussive elements to the music sounded nicely rich and vivid, but most of the time I thought the score seemed a bit thin; it lacked the presence and dynamics I expected. Overall, I still felt the soundtrack worked well for an aging movie.
How did this Blu-ray compare to the original DVD from 2001? Audio had a bit more clarity and power, while visuals showed improved accuracy and definition. This was a stronger representation of the source material.
The Blu-ray reproduces the DVD’s extras and adds a new one. On Disc One, we get a trailer and a 1987 documentary. The China Odyssey: Empire of the Sun, a Film By Steven Spielberg lasts for 49 minutes and 10 seconds as it provides a very interesting look at the movie.
A few interview bits appear with director Steven Spielberg, actor Christian Bale, and an unnamed model plane operator. However, the majority of the segments feature JG Ballard, the author of the fairly autobiographical book on which the flick was based. I really like these, as they help us learn the facts behind the tale, and Ballard provides a personal perspective that was compelling.
Hosted by Martin Sheen, we also get a short but helpful discussion of the history behind the film. We learn about the facts of the Japanese invasion and the set-up of China at the time, and this neatly puts the events in perspective.
While these elements are very good, the strongest aspects of “The China Odyssey” come from its many shots from the set. Most of the program consists of these pieces, and they offer a fine look at the processes used. I won’t call this a documentary that really gave us the detailed ins-and-outs of the production, but it’s still fascinating to watch Spielberg work with the actors, especially via his interactions with Bale. Though it feels a little like a promotional piece at times, it still offers a solid show.
On Disc Two – a standard DVD – we find a documentary called Warner At War. Narrated by Steven Spielberg, it goes for 47 minutes, one second and includes archival elements and clips from a variety of relevant films. We learn a bit about WB history as well as their work throughout WWII. This becomes a solid overview that covers the subject well.
The disc comes in a hardcover book. It includes an overview, cast/crew bios, some press blurbs about the film, and a variety of photos. This isn’t one of the better books found with WB Blu-rays, but it still has some good elements.
Empire of the Sun may well be Steven Spielberg’s least known flick, but it doesn’t deserve its obscurity. Arguably the best of his “serious” works, Empire provides a consistently engrossing piece that also shines due to a stellar performance by Christian Bale. The Blu-ray delivers strong visuals and audio as well as a few interesting bonus elements. Arguably Spielberg’s best “serious film”, Empire remains a high-quality effort after 25 years.
To rate this film visit the original review of EMPIRE OF THE SUN