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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/20/01

Empire of the Sun
1987 (2001) - Amblin/Warner Bros. (Warner)

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Empire of the Sun Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A-/B+

Specs and Features

152 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, Snapper case packaging, dual-sided, RSDL dual-layered (Side A only - layer switch at 1:14:04 in chapter 22), The China Odyssey: Empire of the Sun, A Film by Steven Spielberg documentary, theatrical trailer, cast and crew listing, awards list, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (45 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"Difficult boy..."

One thing that's always perplexed me about Empire of the Sun, is that it's Spielberg's least recognized/loved/talked about (take your pick) film of his post-Jaws repertoire. Yet it's arguably his best, although Schindler's List gives it a good run for its money. Nonetheless, if I were Spielberg, in a hundred years from now, when film buffs and students look back at my work (forget Jurassic Park, E.T. and Saving Private Ryan), I would want people to remember me for Schindler's List and Empire of the Sun.

Based on J.G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Empire of the Sun weaves the epic tale of a 12-year-old boy named Jim (Christian Bale in his American film debut), who experiences the massive conflict between China and Japan during World War II as a British prisoner of the Japanese army. Some 30,000 British and American citizens lived in Shanghai, China during the early 20th Century. As WWII heated up, the Japanese invaded the country and eventually imprisoned all of the Western civilians living within. When the Westerners begin fleeing the under siege city of Shanghai, Jim is separated from his parents in of a massive sea of humanity. Thus begins a three-year journey that will see Jim come of age during the most difficult of circumstances.

During this journey that takes him from abandoned sectors of Shanghai, to vast Japanese internment camps rife with death and disease, Jim becomes acquainted with American street hustler Basie (John Malkovich) and his toady, Frank (Joe Pantoliano). As Jim runs errands for Basie, the young man learns the politics of their Japanese captors and the nearly animalistic - almost parasitic - means of surviving the harsh conditions. When Jim merges these "skills" with his intellect and natural survival instincts, he acclimates himself to the people and events in his unfortunate world. By the war's end, the once carefree Jim becomes a permanent prisoner of his experience, unable to see the world around him in the same way ever again.

Christian Bale's extraordinary performance in Empire of the Sun is the principle factor bringing me back to revisit this film again and again. Bale's portrayal of Jim is light years ahead of what his abilities should have been as a relatively inexperienced 12-year-old actor. Bale "got" this character from start to finish, and effectively demonstrated every nuance of emotion and internal psychology that the character experienced. Malkovich also did a superb job in this film, but while his portrayal of the bloodsucking Basie might not be the ultimate performance of his career, he makes the character unique by injecting him with his own (for a lack of a better way to say it) Malkovich-ness.

As a film, Empire of the Sun was beautifully conceived and expertly executed, from its authentic recreations of the sights and sounds of the period, to its gorgeous, sweeping cinematography. However, the film's cinematography is also a point of contention. In my eyes, Spielberg's inexplicable aversion to the CinemaScope format keeps this film from being damn near perfect. As I sat watching this DVD, I continually wondered how much more grand and majestic the entire experience could have been if the frame and field of view were widened. In 1.85:1 flat, the film seems artistically, and almost emotionally, truncated and more limited than I would have liked. Whether or not this was a creative decision on Spielberg's part is unknown to me (perhaps the more limited 1.85:1 format is supposed to offer a sense of enclosure, reinforcing Jim's own situation), but Spielberg hasn't used the 2.35:1 format for two decades, which leads me to believe that it was more a matter of his preference for 1.85:1 than anything else. If anyone out there can offer solid proof (or even logical speculation) as to why Spielberg uses 1.85:1 exclusively, I'd love to hear it, because I think it really compromises some of his work.

Speaking of aspect ratios, Empire of the Sun is presented on DVD in its original 1.85:1 ratio (16x9 enhanced), and the video offered on this DVD is very good - better than I've ever seen the film looking before. While it can take on a somewhat hazy appearance, with slightly washed out colors, the overall presentation is still quite enjoyable and shouldn't disappoint fans of the film. Compression artifacting is kept to a minimum, but slight edge enhancement is noticeable from time to time.

The new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio featured on this DVD is an impressive reworking of the film's original soundtrack. The sound space is opened up quite a bit more, and front-to-back panning is evident during key sequences. Dialog is never muted or distorted, and John William's angelic score is spread nicely throughout the environment. If you've always enjoyed Empire of the Sun, this new 5.1 audio should enhance an already wonderful experience.

Following MGM's use of the DVD-14 format for The Terminator: SE, Warner is the next studio to adopt the configuration for their DVD edition of Empire of the Sun. The disc's first side contains the film, spread over two layers (DVD-9) for optimum picture quality, while the second side of the disc is a single layered (DVD-5) configuration, and home to the disc's sole supplemental material, the 49-minute China Odyssey: The Making of Empire of the Sun documentary. Hosted by Martin Sheen, and filmed for network television during the movie's production, this doc is an interesting look "behind-the-scenes" at the film, but it's not all-inclusive. The genesis of the story is revealed through interviews with author J.G. Ballard, as well as explanations of the history behind the history. Plenty of footage of the production can be found here, as well as the typical interviews with the cast and crew. It's a relatively informative piece, but it doesn't compare to the intimacy that a commentary with Ballard and/or Spielberg would have provided.

World War II buffs and fans of epic dramas alike will find a lot to love about Empire of the Sun. It's an interesting film based on a true story, and the acting - especially by Christian Bale - is magnificent. On DVD, the film looks and sounds better than ever. Despite the fact that Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg's forgotten children, from an artistic standpoint, it's one of his best.

Greg Suarez
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