Applying the word "overlooked" to one of Steven Spielberg's films means using the term loosely. Few directors, after all, have commanded the degree of attention and publicity afforded Spielberg since Jaws helped redefine the financial and marketing expectations of movies. A commercial disappointment largely ignored by institutional awards, 1987's Empire Of The Sun, now newly available on DVD, comes closest to qualifying. A follow-up to Spielberg's adaptation of The Color Purple, a sort of public declaration of maturity, Empire continued to confound expectations created by the bullwhips and UFOs of his previous works. Empire is another literary adaptation, based on J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel about his unusual WWII-era childhood. As the film opens, Ballard surrogate Jim Graham (played by 13-year-old Christian Bale, whose performance foreshadows his later development into a first-rate actor) lives in a late-stage colonial paradise, a section of Shanghai remade to look like a lost English city, and seemingly untouched by the Japanese occupation. Bale devotes far more attention to model airplanes than to the prejudices and petty cruelties inherent in his position, until his world comes to a sudden end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as Japan's protection of Shanghai's European residents gives way to a new policy of looting and imprisonment. Shocked into independence by his separation from his parents, Bale is forced to fend for himself amid the new order. "It's really about the death of innocence, the death of one's childhood," Spielberg comments in The China Odyssey, a 1987 making-of documentary included on the disc. "Which is kind of the opposite of stuff I usually do. I usually celebrate childhood, and usually celebrate the kind of perseverance and preservation of innocence." That statement may have sounded more or less true at the time, but it now seems like a hint of the themes that would run through Spielberg's later work. Bale is the first in his string of lost boys wandering through fallen worlds—a string that continues with the concentration-camp children of Schindler's List, the emblematic Private Ryan, and Haley Joel Osment's soulful robot in A.I. (Spielberg was unable to return the genie to the bottle. His later attempt to celebrate childhood innocence with 1991's Hook was a gaudy, phony mess.) Ballard admits he toned down his memories for his book, a process furthered by Spielberg and screenwriter Tom Stoppard. Even so, the PG-rated film is among the darkest of Spielberg's career, with one sequence involving the struggle to get into the relative safety of an internment camp. It's also among the most morally complex. Stoppard's script is a model of epic economy; he puts the greatest emphasis on the relationship between Bale and fellow prisoner John Malkovich, a mercenary who, after a failed attempt to sell Bale into slavery, becomes both his sainted protector and his exploiter, with a paternal concern that stretches only as far as his charge's usefulness to his survival. Ultimately, Malkovich functions as the bad angel whose counsel Bale needs to make it out of the war. This unapologetically unsentimental relationship provides an appropriate centerpiece to the film in which Spielberg began spiking his sentiment with a sense of loss, and focusing his visual and storytelling gifts on goals other than the creation of wonder. Killing off childhood innocence has its own compensations, the freedom to see the world as a grownup not the least of them.
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