Empire of the Sun
Studio: Warner Bros.
US BD Release Date: November 13, 2012
Original Release Year: 1987
Running Time: 153 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English (SDH), French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Latin Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Movie: 3.5 out of 5
I feel it is necessary to preface this review with a confession. As a teenager, I was a Spielberg Fanboy, desperate to see his next film if not on opening day, then the opening weekend. I would study his films as best I could (this was just before the home video revolution) and try to emulate them in my own short films shot on Super 8mm.
From the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Steven Spielberg was king of the box office with a string of hits, including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with a few speed bumps along the way (1941, Twilight Zone: The Movie). But in 1985, something changed, and Spielberg would attempt to make two serious films aimed at a much older audience at Warner Brothers, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987).
Up to this point, World War II was a common theme through most of his films. Jaws has Quint’s (Robert Shaw) memorable recollection of the tragic fate of the USS Indianapolis. The fighter planes found in the Mexican desert at the beginning of Close Encounters were from a 1945 training mission. 1941 was inspired by the Japanese bombing of an oil rig in Santa Barbara, CA and the heightened tensions of the citizens of Los Angeles. Indiana Jones battles Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And his one-hour episode for Amazing Stories entitled The Mission was about a WWII bomber crew’s 13th mission.
Naturally, I was enthusiastic when I heard that Spielberg planned to follow The Color Purple with an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s best-seller, Empire of the Sun, which follows the life of a young boy held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp following the invasion of Shanghai. Spielberg cast then-newcomer Christian Bale as Jim (Jamie) Graham, the son of a wealthy British couple who is spoiled, entitled, and has a never-ending fascination with airplanes. When he becomes separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, he returns to his home, eating canned and other non-perishable food items. When his food and water supply run out, he ventures into the streets, trying to surrender to any and every Japanese soldier he meets, hoping to be captured and taken care of. Basie (John Malkovich), an American merchant seaman and opportunist, takes Jim under his wing, and in exchange, Jim leads Basie and his partner, Frank (Joe Pantoliano), back to his neighborhood to pillage the abandoned homes for treasures. But instead of treasures, they find Japanese soldiers, who take them as prisoners and ship them off to an internment camp on the outskirts of Shanghai. It is here where much of the film takes place, as we follow Jim on his adventures to becoming a man while also experiencing many of the horrors of war.
My initial reaction to Empire of the Sun was not a favorable one, and audiences and critics alike seemed to agree that the film was more style than substance, and that, perhaps, Spielberg wasn’t mature enough to direct such a tough, dramatic piece. This is a gorgeous film, beautifully photographed by Allen Daviau, who had worked with Spielberg previously on E.T. and The Color Purple, providing a child’s-eye view of war and prison. The film also features one of John Williams best scores, and his haunting rendition of Welsh lullaby Suo Gan is one of the highlights. The problem with the film is that none of the characters are likeable, making it difficult for an audience connect with them. Jim starts out as a spoiled, entitled child, and although he learns throughout the story to be generous and help others, he is still very self-centered. Basie becomes something of a surrogate father-figure to Jim, but Basie’s generous spirit is tied to his own agenda. Although I’ve grown to better-appreciate this film over the years, it is still not one of my top favorites from Spielberg.
Video: 4.5 out of 5
The 1080p transfer, compressed using the AVC codec, is a faithful representation of the 70mm release prints used during Empire of the Sun’s initial theatrical release. Colors are consistent and accurate, detail is exquisite. Some may be bothered by the contrast levels, finding them a bit on the light side, but I feel they are intentional to best capture Daviau’s cinematography. Film grain is present, but never distracting.
Audio: 4.5 out of 5
Like the video, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a faithful representation of the 6-track magnetic soundtrack used on the 70mm prints, but adding split surrounds. Dialogue is clear and mostly centered, and the increased fidelity and dynamic range of a lossless track is an added benefit for the John Williams score. Surrounds are used mostly for atmospheric effects, enveloping the viewer in the environment of nearly every scene, and discrete effects are used, especially during battle sequences. The track does show its age, however, in the use of LFE, which often lacks the punch of a more modern recording.
Special Features: 4 out of 5
Warner has released Empire of the Sun in a 2-disc digibook edition. The digibook consists of 38 pages of production stills, summary, trivia, and brief biographies of Steven Spielberg, Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano, and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.
Disc One (Blu-ray):
The China Odyssey: “Empire of the Sun,” a Film by Steven Spielberg (480i, 49:10): Narrated by Martin Sheen, this excellent documentary not only takes a look at the making of the film, but also provides historical context to the events in the film, notably the International Territory section of Shanghai and the invasion by the Japanese. Originally produced in 1987 and posted on standard definition video, the documentary shows some age but the content overcomes that.
Theatrical Trailer (480i, 1:43)
Disc Two (DVD):
Warner at War (480i, 47:01): Steven Spielberg narrates another fascinating documentary, this one covering the war years at Warner Bros, specifically World War II, the films that were made, and Warner’s efforts in propaganda.
Overall: 4 out of 5
Not exactly one of my favorite films from director Steven Spielberg, Empire of the Sun is a film that can grow on you on repeat viewings. Warner’s presentation is excellent, and the two documentaries included make this well-worth picking up.
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