One of the many mysteries of "Empire of the Sun" (selected theaters) is why Steven Spielberg chose it for his return to directing--other than a passion for the skies, which Spielberg and Jim, his young protagonist, share.
J. G. Ballard's novel, on which Tom Stoppard based his screenplay, is a chilly and disturbing account of the survival years of a clever, far-from-lovable 11-year-old British schoolboy living with his family in Shanghai's comfortable International Settlement just as World War II erupts.
Before "Empire of the Sun," Ballard was known in English cult circles for his 17 or so books of science fiction, as detached, clammy and nightmarish as the work of his mentor William Burroughs. With "Empire," Ballard still clung to the form of fiction although he was writing about his own wartime experiences--with one significant change: Ballard and his parents endured their Japanese internment camp together.
For all its good intentions, for the thrillingly staged moments in the film's first quarter--for all the sweeping movement of thousands of people streaming through the streets of Shanghai--and for all its not-inconsiderable craft, the film's grave problem is a lack of central heating: We don't have a single character to warm up to. They are either illegal, immoral or fatally malnourished. It's a problem that came with the novel, but Stoppard seems not to have solved it, and the big screen and the long running time (2 1/2 hours) seem to have magnified it a thousandfold.
In the tumult of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, young Jim (13-year-old Christian Bales), abruptly wrenched from his parents, scavenges, almost starves and finally finds himself a prisoner of the Japanese, whom in any case he admires far more than his house servants, the Chinese.
Having begun as overprivileged and lordly, Jim learns how to hustle, wheedle, steal and horse-trade his way into survival in an internment camp filled with American, Dutch and English prisoners. His tutor is the American merchant sailor Basie (John Malkovich), a master grifter who'd as soon sell Jim as listen to him.
Surely the least sentimental young "hero" ever to occupy the center of a massive movie, Jim isn't shaped by the horrors of his surroundings into a more loving, more admirable or more humane person. He becomes a slicker and more accomplished little con man. Perhaps, at the film's end, as we search this boy's eyes and see only the thousand-mile stare of the lost soul, we are being told that we have witnessed the education of the young man who will grow up to write J. G. Ballard books--but that cannot have been the film makers' intention in this monumental undertaking.
Spielberg can be admired for keeping Jim the rigorous emotional outsider that he remains, but the director has at the same time sketched in all the other characters with chalk. With the exception of Malkovich, they simply do not stand out at all: Nigel Havers' courageous doctor, Rawlins; Miranda Richardson's slowly fading woman who is at least supposed to trigger Jim's adolescent fantasies, and Leslie Phillips' Mr. Maxton, a pillar of Jim's life both in the Shanghai and prison sequences.
Given full rein in the foreground of our attention, young Bale is an anxious, edgy, very creditable Jim, so utterly captivated by airplanes that his heroes become the young Japanese kamikaze pilots whom he watches from across the airfield.
If that facet makes the week of the anniversary of Pearl Harbor seem an odd time to release "Empire of the Sun," an equal puzzlement is just who the movie is intended for. Adults may decide that it's certainly not aimed at them as a voice slowly reads the film's introduction at the same time that it unrolls on the screen. But as you watch Jim blossoming into a gimlet-eyed little wheeler-dealer, a growing suspicion forms that these are not exactly the survival skills you'd want youngsters to study avidly either.
In a similar vein, the movie's portrayal of this tumultuous period of history is unsatisfying. If you don't know much about the Japanese occupation of China prior to Pearl Harbor, you're not going to catch up here. And some of the film's most nagging questions, like the whereabouts of Jim's parents throughout the war, are quietly ignored.
Three of the film's dozens of notable technical areas are worthy of special notice: Allen Daviau's fluid and sensitive camera work, some of it shot in Shanghai itself; Michael Kahn's consummate editing choices, and Norman Reynolds' astonishing production design.
If we can be heartened that "Empire of the Sun" (MPAA-rated: PG) is not saccharine or cloying, we might also hope for an emotional center in the midst of all this feverish movement. That would seem to be the next problem that Spielberg, a screen virtuoso in so many other ways, could address.