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directed by Steven Spielberg

There are a lot of Spielberg movies that anyone could have made with the same script and budget. It’s not that they’re not good movies. It’s just that they’re not distinct. I have to admit that I get a little annoyed at all of the praise behind films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. These were movies that anyone could have made, and they would have come out pretty much the same. Even movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones are all fairly nondescript, extremely well made, popcorn fare. There are only a handful of movies that I think only Spielberg could have made: E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Empire of the Sun. And because these movies are so distinctly Spielberg, they are easily my favorites of all that he has directed. Too many war movies focus on the troops in the thick of battle. There are a few that seek to question the effects of war on the innocent. In my favorite war movies the troops are always the secondary characters. By focusing on a child caught up in the middle of a world war, we are able to see that the casualties of war are truly legion.

Too often we see great films overlooked and lesser ones praised beyond belief. I don’t know if it was the film’s downbeat ending, or that it asked too much of its audience, but Empire of the Sun pretty much fell into that hole of obscurity where films like Always and The Lost World are hiding out. It doesn’t deserve to be there. Warner’s is releasing this disc without much fanfare, and that’s a shame. In the wake of Saving Private Ryans success and Band of Brothers on HBO there is a great opportunity to reach a large audience with another tale of the second world war.

Spielberg received a great deal of praise for the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. There’s no denying that it is a spectacle of the highest order. But in the three years since its release it has gone from being the most harrowing 20 minutes to ever be captured on film to being one of the most impressive DTS surround demos on the market. People look past the content to focus on the technique, when the technique should be transparent. Film, by its very nature, is unable to be realistic. There will always be a camera angle. No matter how good the special effects are, we will always be aware of the special effects. And the best performances will always be performances. When a director is willing to embrace the limitations of film and acknowledge that he/she will never be able to truly recreate reality, he/she will begin to tap into film’s strength.

At best, movies can function as allegories or idealized realities. Spielberg is not trying to make a realistic film with Empire of the Sun. The story that he is telling is much bigger than that of just one boy. It is his awareness of the limitations of film that gives this film its heart and its strength. Even though Empire of the Sun is based on the remembered experiences of British novelist J. G. Ballard growing up in Chinese interment camps during World War II, it is probably more fantasy than reality. It doesn’t matter whether the story really happened the way it’s portrayed. What matters is that it feels true. This is one more take on the exchange of innocence for experience. Spielberg comments that this theme is contrary to what he usually does. I would argue that in many ways it completes his earlier films.

The DVD looks so much better than what I was expecting. After a terrible transfer of 1942 and an adequate transfer of Always, I expected that the picture would be little more than adequate. I’m happy to say that the movie looks as if it was filmed in the last couple of years rather than the mid-eighties. Great attention was also paid to the soundtrack. I am happy for any remix of a John Williams’ score in Dolby 5.1. Empire of the Sun is one of his most subtle and affecting works. The new digital mix makes good use of the surrounds without being too flashy.

The DVD offers little in the way of extras. There is a film trailer and a documentary; The China Odyssey. The documentary included on the disc gives insight not only into the creation of the film, but it also illuminates much of the context of the film’s story. Because this chapter in history is overshadowed so much by Pearl Harbor, it was nice to get a better sense of what was going on. I also enjoyed to footage of Spielberg working with actors and crew. It is easy to see why he can be so good when he gets it right. This is the kind of documentary that enriches the experience of watching the film instead of simply documenting a series of processes. Watch it.

This is a gorgeous film, probably his most careful creation. The screenplay delves deeper into the effects of war and chaos on civilization,, and it comes to some pretty disturbing conclusions. Watching it again on DVD has affirmed my opinion that this is one of Spielberg’s three strongest films, but after all the praise that the academy has heaped on Ryan and Schindler, I doubt that even Spielberg himself would agree with me. This is a great film and I for one am grateful to finally have it on DVD. Any number of directors could have made Saving Private Ryan; only Spielberg could have made Empire of the Sun.

Jason Frank   (12/02/2001)


Ups: Beautiful remastering; very good companion documentary.

Downs: No worries here.

Platform: DVD