EMPIRE OF THE SUN -- Steven Spielberg's Overlooked, Misunderstood Masterwork

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Ernest Rister, Feb 8, 2004.

  1. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    Empire of the Sun:
    Spielberg's Overlooked Misunderstood Masterwork
    by
    Ernest Rister
    EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)
    (d. Steven Spielberg, scr. Tom Stoppard, ph. Allan Daviau)
    JAMIE
    I was dreaming about God.
    MARY
    What did he say?
    JAMIE
    Nothing. He was playing tennis. Perhaps that's where God is all the time -- [in our dreams] -- and that's why you can't see Him when you're awake, do you think?
    MARY
    I don't know. I don't know about God.
    JAMIE
    Perhaps He's our dream...and we're His.

    ------
    In the short documentary, The China Odyssey, Steven Spielberg talks about his take on author J.G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun. Ballard's book details the author's own true-life experiences as a British child of privilege separated from his parents by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941, and one of Spielberg's boldest opinions of the work was that half of the book was a lie -- half of it true in the broad strokes, certainly, but it was Spielberg's belief that the details and vignettes were completely warped by Ballard's childhood perception.
    This is crucial to understanding Spielberg's work on the film - which has long been dismissed or completely, fundamentally misread - not a single shot can be trusted.
    Consider the scene referenced in italics above. Spielberg concludes this passage with a shot of Jamie in bed while his mother and father look on fondly. Spielberg's editor Michael Kahn then does something strange - he performs a quick dissolve of this same shot onto itself, which at first glance appears to be a gaffe. It isn't a gaffe. It's intentional. Spielberg wants you to remember this shot for an important reason.
    Only later - and only if you remeber that odd dissolve - do you see the payoff to this moment. Jamie becomes separated from his parents and spends the remainder of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp. He's spent years idealizing his parents to the point where he finally admits - in a scene of tremendous power - he can't remember what they actually look like any more. Subtly illustrating this point, hanging next to Jim's makeshift prison bed is a Norman Rockwell painting torn out of the pages of LIFE Magazine. The painting is of a Mother and Father looking fondly at a child in bed.
    It is the exact same image from earlier in the film.
    The implication here is that the earlier scene never happened, or at the very least didn't happen in the way Spielberg presented it to you -- the reality of the moment has been skewed by Jamie's fantasies. Either way, Spielberg's camera lied to you, and in 1987, there wasn't a film critic in America who noticed.
    Spielberg's camera is a font of dishonesty in Empire of the Sun, a blazingly original, criminally ignored film. Nothing in the frame can be trusted. Consider the first appearance of John Malkovich as the stranded maritime con man, Basie. When we first meet Basie, he is one cool customer, strongly backlit, his face obscured by dark sunglasses and a G.I. cap. This is all fine and good, except Basie's appearance has already been foretold by the cover of the "Wings" comic book Jamie reads in the first moments of the film. The cover of the comic details a back-lit G.I., wearing dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed cap. When the camera sees Basie, we see him as Jamie sees him -- a figure of salvation and skill.
    In the closing moments of the film, Jim confronts Basie, and finds him a thin, shell of a man with bad skin, still pursuing his dream of being the pirate "lord of the Yangtzee". Is his physical condition simply the result of malnutrition? (unlikely, since at this moment Basie is in seemingly ample supply of Hershey's Chocolate bars)? No - this is the real Basie. Not the idealized Basie, but the real Basie. Jim's days of hero-worship are over.
    The truth is that Steven Spielberg, long considered dead behind the eyes in some circles, made a film that toyed with reality as much as Rashomon or Blow Up, but because in 1987 he was critically regarded as a sort of live-action Walt Disney, a commercial filmmaker who distilled complexity down into mass-market product, Spielberg's work in Empire was taken at face value, and the film was dismissed as a pointless failure.
    Empire of the Sun would seem to be sitting up and begging for analysis, so loaded is it with moments of fantasy and reverie in the midst of suffering. The film is all about the human need for escapism and denial in the face of a harsh reality, but it was received as a Shanghai version of An American Tail by way of a David Lean imitator suffering from Peter Pan syndrome. This was incorrect. Wildly incorrect. Many critics, in fact, directly faulted Spielberg for the unreality of Empire of the Sun and they took him to task for it. They missed the point. Spielberg literally lifts the subconscious interpretation of events by a 12 year-old boy and prints those memories onto film. The prison camp - which was criticized for being a fantasy construct and not a real environ - exists as the child remembers it. Since children can have quite a fine time with a cardboard box, you can imagine how much fun a boy who loves planes had living next to an airfield. Spielberg puts that interpretation on film.
    It is said that there are two types of media -- lean-forward media and lean-back media. Lean-forward media asks you to particiapte, to do your own work, to sort things out. Lean back media does all the work for you, the film acts upon you, as opposed to you injecting yourself into the film. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a lean-back movie. E.T. is a lean-back movie. Jaws is a lean-back movie. Even The Color Purple is a lean-back film.
    Empire of the Sun is a lean-forward film, but because Spielberg had created so many masterful films in the classic Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Ford, and Walt Disney mold, this is what people expected from him. Empire of the Sun was something completely new from Steven Spielberg - a film that worked on multiple levels of reality, with one informing the other. Audiences and critics did not know what to make of it.
    Spielberg became a victim of his own success. Having proven himself a master of fantasy and special f/x, audiences and critics took his visuals - some of them subtle, some of them wildly abstracted - at face value. The film is jammed full of impossible moments that clearly are not happening, including a toy glider that stays impossibly aloft, the aforementioned scene involving the family, a trio of pilots who salute the young boy in a hail of welding sparks, a pilot of a P-51 who waves to Jim, a refrigerator that bursts open revealing - instead of food - glitter and toys...there's a gesture that Jim sees his father perform, rubbing his finger across his upper lip. Later, Jim will have a new father figure, Dr. Rawlins, who will repeat the same gesture. Film critic Patrick Taggart actually asked what the point of this gesture was. Ten years later, I'm happy to tell him the gesture is the result of Jim's fading recollection of his parents. He remembers his father making the gesture, and as Dr. Rawlins becomes his "new" father, Jim begins superimposing attributes onto him, including his father's own mannerisms. It could actually be the reverse - with the earlier shots of the father actually warped by the later memories of the prison camp. Again, nothing can be trusted.
    Spielberg reveals to us this inner life in an enormously subtle way. The standard practice for "interior point of view" scenes is to clue the audience in by the use of hazy wipes and dissolves, or cross cutting between "interior pov" and "actual "pov". Spielberg discarded these devices completely, trusting in the intelligence of his audience. He does use slow-motion and the occasional absurd image to try and drive his message home, but in Empire of the Sun, he's more apt to lead you to the truth from the edges. One quick throw-away spotlights the British POWs reading from A Midsummer Nights Dream as Jim races by, a little clue to the movie's intentions that Spielberg slips by you, almost subliminally.
    The film is about escapism, how it can kill. Time and time again, Spielberg and his screenwriter Tom Stoppard serve up an entire cast of characters who choose to ignore the reality of the world around them and end up emaciated shells of their former selves or worse. The film's message seems to be that in the face of such a serious reality, denial and escapism are deadly, and the world must be dealt with on its own terms. Jim's Great Dream - other than flying - is to reunite with his parents, and he carries all of his childhood memorabilia in a small suitcase. Jim must forsake this fantasy and grapple with reality - this suitcase that contains his dreams will later be seen floating alongside the dead in the Shanghai Harbor.
    Because of his pre-occupation with exploring this theme, Empire of the Sun is unique in the Spielberg canon in that it is a film less concerned with plot than it is with examining an idea - the value and necessity for denial and escapism -- and all the ways the human animal lies to itself. The unfortunate result is a film that winds down emotionally by the end of its 2nd hour, and it has been called a somewhat distant film. Movies are things we go to for many reasons, but, as Roger Ebert says, primarily we go because we want to feel something. Works like Empire of the Sun border on functioning like a parlor-game -- they're a great work-out for the left-side of your soul and a litmus test for how you view film, but they're also a bit emotionally cold. This oft-repeated criticism of Empire of the Sun - that it fails to engage in its latter scenes - isn't something so easily dismissed away. Lawrence of Arabia sported a hole in the center of its drama in the shape of a man who was a total enigma. Empire of the Sun - which David Lean himself was attached to at one point - also has a protagonist at its center who is emotionally distant, keeping the viewer at arm's reach. The difference is that, in Lawrence, you had a man of fathomless interest and contradictions at its fore, and in Empire of the Sun, you had a spoiled child.
    To me, Empire of the Sun represents the death of the Spielberg I grew up with, just as much as it tells the tale of a child who must shuck off the best parts of childhood in order to survive. Its my personal belief that the failure of this film was a giant blow to the man, whose career went into a tailspin even as it was generating ever-higher box office returns. Spielberg's public quotes around this time are the most self-loathing of his life, referring to works like Hook as "hamburgers" and himself as little more than a McDonald's fry chief.
    Spielberg would be reborn in 1993 with Schindler's List, and he has since proven beyond little doubt that he is at the top of his game when he tackles new and challenging material, at his worst when he is making films that are familiar to him - like a gifted student sleepwalking through 6th grade reading. His incredibly polished style, though -- the pristine choreography that was the hallmark of his work from Jaws on up to Empire -- that now floats in the Yangtzee with the rest of the coffins and childhood memories. Works like Last Crusade, Always and Hook clerarly show a man who has grown frustrated and dissatisifed with his own style. In 1993, he would find his passion for his own voice again.
    The great thing about video is that it gives films a second chance, and it is never too late to rediscover a buried classic. Empire of the Sun deserves your attention on home video, but what's more, I think Spielberg's work in the film deserves your open mind and your further contemplation.
    -- ER3
     
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  2. Brian W.

    Brian W. Screenwriter

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    I've only seen this film once, so my memory of it is somewhat vague, but what I do remember is that, for me, Spielberg failed to create a sympathetic character in the boy. I recall him being such a spoiled brat that I didn't care what happened to him, so I did not find the film involving at all. However complex Spielberg's intentions, and however simple this may sound, a character the audience is rooting for is the minimum you must achieve with a film. To me, this failure was the movie's fatal mistake.

    Contrast that with Henry: Portrait of a Serial killer, where the director skillfully uses Henry's budding relationship with Becky to make us hope she can change him, and uses scenes of Henry defending Becky against her abusive brother Otis to make us root for him, even though he is a cold-blooded serial killer.
     
  3. Edwin-S

    Edwin-S Producer
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    After reading comments about this film on this site, I bought the film sight unseen. I have to admit I didn't get quite as much out of it as you did. While I thought it was okay, I found the pacing killed it a bit for me. I found it hard to really care about the central character and what was happening to him. I found this comment interesting.



    Can a film like this be considered a success if it only engages the intellect and fails to connect on an emotional level? I'm not sure of the answer, but I found myself distanced as much from the film, as the main character was distanced from the viewer.

    The film sure was a switch in gear for Spielberg though.
     
  4. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    Kubrick was often accused of the same sin, though I find his films to be wildly emotional underneath the veneer of Kubrick's "unblinking eye". I saw Barry Lyndon on home video when I was a young teen, and I found the pacing to be excruciating. I almost viscerally recoiled at the thought of ever watching it again for years. Only recently did I reluctantly give the film another look, and I found it to be a stunning film, both as a character study and as a sharp criticism of the English social order.

    As for what ultimately constitutes a "good film" -- and the question as to the balance of left-brain/right-brain concerns...I think the world of film is vast and diverse, containing works of great visceral power and films of tremendous internal insight. There's something out there for everyone. My purpose in writing my take on Empire of the Sun was to try to place the film in what I believe to be it's proper context -- it isn't "An American Tail in China", it's actually an experimental work, relying on theme as opposed to plot. I have great respect for it, and to this day - like the ambitious experiment Fantasia - the film still takes my breath away.
     
  5. Edwin-S

    Edwin-S Producer
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    I'm curious. Who referred to the film in that manner? I don't remember any comparisons with "An American Tail" on its initial release.
     
  6. Robert Anthony

    Robert Anthony Producer

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    I've tried tracking this DVD down for the longest time, due to my being a Spielberg fanboy [​IMG] and I believe I've read your writings on the movie somewhere before, Ernest. But thanks again for this. Good stuff.
    I STILL haven't seen this movie, and I'm very anxious to. But even without seeing it, I can agree that the reviews of this movie seem to have demoralized him. It was a very interesting time to be Steven Spielberg. Not necessarily good, not necessarily devastating--but very interesting. He seemed stuck, and you could tell even then he was kind of treading water.
     
  7. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    "I'm curious. Who referred to the film in that manner? I don't remember any comparisons with 'An American Tail' on its initial release."

    Guess it depends on where you lived and what you read in your local papers. The Spielberg-produced American Tail was released in America in the Fall of 1986, and Empire of the Sun followed in December of 1987. Both were stories of children separated from their parents, and the association of the two films here in the states was almost natural.

    There was a palpable backlash against Spileberg that had begun to mount by 1987, critically and commercially. If not for the success of Last Crusade in 1989, you could almost look at 1987 - 1992 as the "dark years" for Spielberg.

    Every time I think of the critical reaction to Empire of the Sun, I think of this review...While he doesn't name Tail specifically, the "enough already" attitude captures the mood of the times towards his work rather well, in my opinion.

    ‘Empire of the Sun’

    By Desson Howe

    Washington Post Staff Writer

    December 11, 1987

    Could Steven Spielberg please avoid the following in his next movie: Boys on bicycles, rebirth, the sky lighting up like the Fourth of July and another pre-teen struggling in an adult world?

    You know, for variety.

    J. G. Ballard's much-touted novel of the '30s, on which "Empire of the Sun" is based, turns out to be perfect for Spielberg's Peter Pannish purposes. Jim (Christian Bale), a British child raised in Shanghai, battles a swiftly eroding childhood, while the adults around him fight World War II. The grown-ups are Japanese invaders, British and American Shanghai residents (soon to be prisoners), and teeming Chinese crowds (it's never clear why they teem so much; probably it's the war).

    Jim, used to a leisurely life of country clubs and servants, is suddenly separated from his parents (lost among the teem-sters). Reduced to wandering, gamin-like, in the streets and his vast but now-empty home, he hooks up with Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), a pair of American seamen hiding out from the Japanese. Soon all three are interned by the Japanese in Soochow Creek camp.

    In the camp (which is most of the movie), Jim becomes something between camp ferret and Junior Christ, scrounging for nails and screws and extra potatoes for former neighbor Mrs. Victor -- and imploring the sadistic commandant to stop beating prisoners. He's also continuing his Latin lessons and dreams of escaping with his idol Basie and of becoming a fighter pilot (a whim never realized, which is odd for the gratification-monger Spielberg).

    Jim has a strange ally, a Japanese kid living outside the camp who also has model planes and dreams of becoming a pilot. The Japanese will later save Jim's life, and in the aforementioned rebirth section, Jim will attempt to revive him. "I can bring anyone back," Jim insists.

    Many scenes are arranged cinematically unto themselves -- Allen Daviau's camera work has an over-evocative mistiness and Michael Kahn's editing wraps things up in a flashy package -- but the scenes seem only a pointless collection of set pieces designed to flex some Spielberg cine-muscle. (Tom Stoppard is credited with the screenplay but there seems to be nothing of his caustic wit here.)

    Behind the trademark fancy package is a troubling sensibility, too. Spielberg seems unable to come to terms with anything real: A hobo hangs outside Jim's house, but he's more theatrically done-up than a Henson Muppet. Jim magically avoids bullets rushing through pitched street battles. British children, chauffeured to a masquerade party, look at the rioting crowds from Rolls Royce windows (one child is even dressed like Marie Antoinette). As a plane drops its bombs in front of him, Jim delights himself in the aircraft's features. The war is just a comic strip for him, just as the movies (and quite possibly life) are for Spielberg.

    In a way, Spielberg is to film what Michael Jackson is to pop. Both grew up within their respective arts rather than in real life, their human growth on perpetual hold. Thus, we're doomed to watching (or hearing) their endless perspectives on the ways of childhood. And after much of this, the outside world -- with its wars, diseases, divorces and harried adults punching the clock and crowding the beltway -- seems a bloody relief.


    Roger Ebert wondered what the point of the movie was. Patrick Taggart of the Austin-American Statesman actually said the film was pointless. In between the confusion of what the movie was about, and the accusations that it was yet another Spielberg movie about estranged childhood - an experimental gem of a film got lost.
     
  8. Edwin-S

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    The writer of the review seems to have missed the point. These lines are pretty good example.



    The kid in the movie was living a privileged life. He was sheltered from a lot of realities. He very obviously had a romanticized idea of war which is not uncommon for kids. Kids don't focus on the concept that people die in wars. They look at and admire the accoutrements of war. I'm an adult, but I still admire the sleekness of the old WWII iron such as P-51s. There is nothing better at an airshow than to listen to the rumbling of a twelve-cylinder Merlin as a P-51 screams by on a high-speed pass.

    The kid in the movie acted completely naturally to me. He wasn't thinking about the possibility of being killed by a falling bomb. He wanted to catch a glimpse of the airplane that he had fantasized about for so long.

    I don't think the movie was pointless either. I think the point of the film was that a person can live in a fantasy for just so long before the reality of a situation starts to encroach upon the illusion. The story, at least to me, was how the realities of the war eventually destroyed the kid's childhood innocence. In that regard, it was a good film. I just don't think that Spielberg succeeded in making a person really care about the kid and his plight. Failing to create some kind of empathy between the kid and the audience reduced the impact of the film.
     
  9. Adam_S

    Adam_S Producer

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    I'm always happy to see Empire of the Sun pop up on HTF, have a look at my sig to see why. [​IMG]
    For me, Empire of the Sun is Citizen Kane. Empire of the Sun is the single searing moment in my life that opened my eyes to the power and splenor--as well as the intimacy emotion--of cinema. There is so much praise I could lay on this film, or I could describe how this film was a synthesis (for me) of the sheer breadth and possibilities of cinema to tell a story, evoke a powerful emotional response and create something so perfectly constructed that it privelege's a return. There've been two moments for me other than Empire of the Sun that evoked such an eye-opening response to storytelling, when I first read Frank Herbert's Dune when I was ten, and then five years later when I first read Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.
    Like those novels, a revisit to the original text is priveleged each time. I feel that there is more going on in the film (and Edwin pointed out some of my favorite examples on the cinematography end) and more to pull out of it, and in my opinion, more to love than just about any other film. Like I said, this film is my equivalent of Citizen Kane. [​IMG] And I don't say that lightly, when I first watched this, it was within days-literally-of having first watched Casablanca, Singin in the Rain, Citizen Kane, Pyscho, Grave of the Fireflies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bicycle Thief, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, amongst other films, and this is the film that set me off on a cinematic journey and exploration. [​IMG] I went into that particular 'summer school' saying Sixth Sense was my favorite movie, and came out with it barely in my top ten.
    I can understand your disconnect from Jamie, Edwin. When I first watched the film. I initially felt that disconnect as well. In fact I was profoundly uncomfortable when Jim runs through the streets screaming, "Help me I'm British" I hate seeing people being 'stupid'. But as the film progressed, adn the characters developed I developed a great deal of emotional empathy for Jim. I remember my heart practically stopping in wonder as Jim watched the moment of intimacy between the Victors while Firebombing goes on in the background (and this days after seeing the firebombing in grave of the fireflies), which possibly remains my favorite sequence in the film. Or staring at the picture from life magazine and wondering at why I was so strongly convinced that it was his parents. I actually had an argument about that after our screening, but I certainly noticed the sequence just after the quote Ernest referenced when I next rewatched the film, and that led me to discovering so many beautiful subtleties to the film.
    Possibly one of my favorite things is Spielberg's use of parallelism--everything counts in this film. At the beginning, we see a seeming innocuous sequence of Jim riding his bike indoors. Perhaps it's just what any boy would do with free rein of the house. But contrasted with Jim riding a bike through the ruins of the country club at the end there is an incredible change visible in his face. As the second sequence effectively repeats the first in timing and shot layout, there is a an anger and emotional turmoil to Jim's face. It is as though as he rides his bike harder and harder that he is trying to regain that self which he was before, when he was still a boy, alone with a bike in his house. and his frustration and anger and being unable to grasp something inexpressible is suddenly exploded as a refrigerator falls through the roof in front of him and showers out presents and confetti instead of food (in another of those tricky dissolves). Jim snaps. He's mad. And the last line of real dialogue in the film is, "I Surrender." Yes, but what, your childhood, your sanity, your adult experiences, your friends, your parents, your family, your country--your self? The film leaves us on an ambiguous and heart wrenching note. Jim may have been found, but he's still lost.
    Damn, dinner time. perhaps I'll post more later.
    Adam
     
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  10. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    Great essay there, Adam. Makes me feel a little old, because I had the same reaction when I saw the film on opening day in 1987...where's my walker and my dentures?
     
  11. Sam Davatchi

    Sam Davatchi Producer

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    I think it’s no secret that this is a great movie. If it wasn’t for The Color Purple and this movie, Spielberg never could have made Schindler’s List. He has said it many times. Empire of the Sun matured Spielberg even more than The Color Purple which is a respected movie. I personally connected very much with Empire and understand it because of “similar” experiences! I mean the idea of growing up and losing your innocence through a difficult time when you are not expecting it. The documentary on the DVD (which was on the LD also) is a first class documentary which helps with the understanding of the story. It’s a must see. It’s not just a making of, it explains the human story.
     
  12. BrettB

    BrettB Producer

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    Thanks for posting this here Ernest. I had found this a while back through the mysteries of ai site.

    Every time I watch this film it inches up my list of favorite films.
     
  13. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    I liked it. Sorry I can't add more. And yes, it's very different from the rest of Spielberg's canon.
    I can't believe I used the word canon. [​IMG]
     
  14. Ross Williams

    Ross Williams Supporting Actor

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    This is a movie I've loved since I was a kid. I've always felt that it was unkown masterpiece. I've never viewed it as the fantasies of a child, but I instantly agreed with everything said by Ernest. I think it's time to watch it again.
     
  15. doug zdanivsky

    doug zdanivsky Supporting Actor

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    Wow! I watched this when I was in my early teens, and I took it totally at face-value... And I loved it!!
    I always thought it was a great movie..
    As soon as it came out on DVD I snatched it up...
    And again I thought it was a great movie, again at face value! I missed every single of Ernest's references..
    The plane staying in the air for an impossibly long time, Japenese pilots saluting a little boy.. I'm thinking "it could happen"..
    But, man, it's like a viel has been lifted!! I'm going to have to watch this again, too.. [​IMG]
    "Many critics, in fact, directly faulted Spielberg for the unreality of Empire of the Sun and they took him to task for it."
    BTW, what unrealities specifically? Historical? Or more along the line of "why would he be looking at the p-51's instead of soiling himself in a corner?".
     
  16. andrew markworthy

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    I think it pays dividends to read Ballard's book as well as see the movie. Spielberg's take on the book shows his strengths and limitations perfectly. He undoubtedly brings out the visual in Ballard's novel, and the scenes are set up with meticulous care. However, Spielberg's understanding, as so often with his work, is visceral rather than intellectual. We thus get an attempt to interpret the emotions of the characters, but we never really understand their logic. I think this runs through all his work. When it doesn't matter about the logic, it's fine, which is why E.T. (with a basic message of heart over mind) is his masterpiece (and I think I could present a plausible case for it being in the top 10 of all movies). Where a sharp wit is required, things go soggy - look at the ending of AI, the whole of 1941, etc.
     
  17. Ray H

    Ray H Producer

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    I saw the movie for the first time a few years ago after having to stay home with the flue. I loved it then and I'm still very affectionate for it. [​IMG]
     
  18. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    So, Terminal is about to be released...amazing that once again, Spielberg is making another film about flight, airplanes, separation from home, community, disillusionment, dreams, broken dreams, broken hearts...is Terminal the "feel good" version of Empire of the Sun, without all of the hidden meanings? Who knows, but EOTS looms large for me in my future appraisal of Spielberg's latest.
     
  19. Sam Davatchi

    Sam Davatchi Producer

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