Steven Spielberg, in all his filmography, he always knew how to deal with children. His first foray into the world of science fiction, with ‘ET – The Extraterrestrial’is perhaps one of his most memorable works – and we cannot forget the incredible performance of Drew Barrymore like little Gertie. However, for the young woman to achieve all the catharsis necessary for the most dramatic scenes, an essential tact was necessary, which was skillfully handled by the filmmaker. We are talking, however, of an adventure film, aimed at a children’s audience; What would happen if Spielberg abruptly migrated to a chaotic scope, dictated by the harsh war rules of the 1940s, and brought as the protagonist a young boy who is uprooted from his wealthy roots to an almost reprehensible environment?
This is precisely what the director proposes to do with ‘Sun Empire’. Based on the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, the story revolves around a boy who loses his parents after a reprisal takes place in the Chinese city where they live, and then plunges into an arc of reunion scrutinized by numerous obstacles both internal and external that even lead him to stop in a field of British refugees on the plains of Asia. The protagonist Jamie “Jim” Graham is embodied by the newcomer Christian Bale, who would become one of the most versatile actors in the Hollywood industry, even being called a “chameleon” for his incredible ability to adapt intrinsically to any role that was assigned to him. And it is in this feature film that Bale established his future reputation and completely stole the spotlight at the time.
First, we must understand that Jim is not like any other child: his open-mindedness is an extension of the very childlike and innocent perspective that Spielberg has always provided for his works, but with a factor that goes beyond mere understanding for what we give them credit for. From the initial moments, the boy shows himself to be much more mature than those around him, for allowing him to think “beyond the box” and to speak in his own words about subjects such as God, about dreams and even about the war, of which he is aware. what happens, despite not feeling it palpably. He is aware and, living far away from his native country – England – he corroborates the warlike genius of the Japanese, firmly believing that they will be the real winners of the war because they are more strategists.
Of course, this thinking is primarily based on the family security provided by his parents, John (Rupert Frazer) and Mary Graham (Emily Richard). It’s no surprise that, despite this being a war movie, the main character plunges into a forced, reversed and completely twisted hero’s journey, separating himself from them in an abrupt and forced way and continuing to survive in the face of the gradual decay of his peers. Like the countless mythical figures whose inciting incident in their arcs is the loss of the parental archetype, Jim suffers a terrible shock in one of the most emotional and tense sequences in contemporary cinema: amidst the chaotic confusion, Jim enters the crowd to rescue a small object she always carries – the miniature version of one of her favorite planes – and ends up losing sight of Mary. Quickly, he climbs into one of the vehicles to look for her and finds himself helpless in the face of the wave of Chinese, Japanese and British that drags her away until she is out of sight.
Spielberg has an incredible ability to create amazing works of art with the camera and the play of lights. In the aforementioned sequence, he and the cinematographer Allen Daviau they mix the melancholy neutral tones typical of a dilapidated setting with the gradual red and orange that spread as the Japanese army takes control of the city’s streets. It’s impressive to see how, using a frame that follows the protagonist’s gaze, the situation that unfolds is much more terrifying – even his red school attire merges with the flaming backdrop, putting him in a seemingly unbreakable cycle.
Jim soon begins to see things from a different perspective. If the frameworks once placed him as submissive to his condition cherished by his parents, now he is on his own. Although he manages to return home, he no longer has the adult figures of both John and Mary and their housekeeper. His growing stay at the mercy of a dangerous and more complex world than he ever imagined is related to the deterioration of the mansion in which he lived, whose explicitness is represented by the swimming pool that exists in the backyard. The boy returns to his primitive state of complete barbarism as all the water evaporates and becomes tasteless and muddy, as does the cloud of uncertainty about his future.
The metaphors do not remain only in this first act, but are repeated in countless ways as he no longer recognizes himself. Inserted in a marginalized society and hostage to a tyrannical and merciless government, he fights for the basic needs to continue surviving, until he finds a brief salvation in the figure of the egocentric and opportunistic Basie (John Malkovich). He’s the typical incarnation of the American ham who doesn’t care about anyone but himself, and only hugs the supposedly orphaned boy to have a “squire” to do his dirty work. Of course, when it comes to a war drama, he finds an arc of redemption that is not very well delineated, but that keeps him stuck to the conventionalisms of his own troubled personality.
Jim rediscovers some humanity in a masked comfort zone. By being transported with other characters of extreme importance for his maturation to a refugee camp, he establishes himself in a new self-sufficient community and within a totalitarian microcosm. Of course, he tries his best to keep the mood relatively happy, especially after expressing gratitude to the tyrannical hospitality of the Japanese in a poetic bow marked only by the contrast between his silhouette and the epiphanic sunset, whose construction Intimist premeditates the end of the war and his return to a home he no longer remembers.
One of the people who helps him the most is the irreverent and weakened Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson). It’s funny to consider how her name is never revealed to us due to the fact that she surrendered to the loss of personality and faced the fate that was in store for her. Her first appearance is still marked by the tenacity of her make-up and the chic clothes she displays with such pomp; Her last frame puts her in a state of excessive humility in the midst of a lost paradise, a receptacle for all the objects stolen from the English by the enemy government and which still gleam with wealth. She would rather die in a familiar environment than keep going, and Jim, who witnesses her death with understandable blankness, lets her go.
Bale is undoubtedly the highlight. He reaffirmingly transposes all the tensions that permeate his character, in shocking and extremely impactful outlines, mainly because of the teary eyes that sometimes show lucidity, sometimes give up and, as a tragic ending, pure madness. Its climax comes shortly after the death of Mrs. Victor, when he witnesses the detonation of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki and associates it with the arrival of the woman’s soul to the long-awaited paradise. The building is beautiful for the wrong reasons – and it is so symbolic that it is utopian.
‘Sun Empire’ takes us to a completely revamped and as real meaning as possible about the narrative aspect of the coming-of-age. Despite the long filming time – over two and a half hours – Jamie Graham’s journey parallels the countless stories we hear about the greatest war of all time, but in an unconventional and extremely emotional way.