Empire of the Sun (1987)

(On DVD, October 2017) “Christian Bale plays J.G. Ballard” is a really weird sentence to contemplate for anyone who knows a bit about twenty-first century blockbuster movies and new-wave sixties prose Science Fiction. It’s even half-true. Empire of the Sun certainly features Christian Bale in one of his first major roles, and adapts J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel to the big screen. However, Ballard’s autobiographical experience mostly applies to the first part of the film, which depicts the lavish lifestyle of the British upper-class in early-WW2 Shanghai and their internment in civilian camps after the Japanese invasion. There are differences, though, as explained in a fascinating 2006 essay on the novel and the film by Ballard himself: Ballard spent the war in a camp with his parents, modified his character’s arc to differentiate it from himself and generally provided more closure than reality afforded. Still, as reported, Christian Bale did introduce himself to the author by saying “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” (The essay multiplies the strangeness—the film was partially filmed near Ballard’s home, leading some of his neighbours to feature in the film as extras.) The film itself is a study in the kind of old-school epic war drama that seems to have disappeared from the current movie landscape in favour of CGI-fuelled fantasy spectacles. There are a number of scenes with thousands of extras, a story that spans years, gorgeously fantastic sights captured in-camera without special effects (such as a stadium filled with objects taken by the Japanese) and an overall sweep to the story that feels prodigious. Bale is fine as the sometimes-unwitting protagonist of the story, but John Malkovich is delightfully amoral as a survivor trying his best to make it through the war, while various other notables such as Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano and Ben Stiller (!) show up in smaller parts. The depiction of Shanghai is gripping, as is the way normalcy is disrupted in small and big ways after the Japanese invasion. The airplane motif is well done, and the film does earn its relatively happy conclusion. Dark humour and vertiginous sights (such as a faraway glimpse at nuclear explosions) enliven an already satisfying story. The result is still surprisingly engaging thirty years later—but then again, it’s a Steven Spielberg production.

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