Remember when Christian Bale was just an itty bitty little British kid flexing his budding acting muscles for Steven Spielberg? Not a lot of people do. Empire of the Sun is probably one of the director’s least seen films made during the height of his popularity, aside from Always and 1941. Before Bale stuffed himself into a rubber bat suit or flashed some skin as an American psycho, he was an 11-year-old boy named Jim surviving World War II in 1940s Shanghai with the help of scruffy John Malkovich and a young Ben Stiller. And what an impressive film debut it was for the young actor. Yes, this magnificent performance was in a big, glossy Hollywood movie. Yes, it’s riddled with overly grand celluloid melisma. And yes, it contains Spielberg’s love for youthful wonderment that have become both lauded and loathed by critics and audiences alike. Yet Empire stands as a monumental achievement for Spielberg as a director; tackling many complex themes that include the repercussions of war, childhood survival, and the end of innocence, all with aplomb and intense passion.
But back to Bale: My favorite line in the film is when Jim, after the horrific incident in Nagasaki that ended the war, utters, “I learned a new word today. Atom bomb.” That pretty much signaled the shift in people’s perceptions of war and that we now live in an age where we could destroy ourselves with the simple push of a button. And Spielberg shows us that shift through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. The flash of light that Jim describes as, “God taking a photograph,” not only changed the world forever, but it was also the point where Jim sheds his childhood innocence and becomes a man. Empire of the Sun is a coming-of-age gem all film lovers should take the time to experience. You may think it’s an underrated masterpiece or a hollow, heavy-handed mess, but I think most people will agree it contains one of the greatest child performances in cinema history.