Empire of the Sun
1987
Steven Spielberg directs a young Christian Bale in a stunning feature-film debut as Jim, a British expatriate who's separated from his parents when the Japanese army invades Shanghai at the outset of World War II. Eventually interned in a civilian prison camp, Jim hooks up with several American prisoners (led by John Malkovich) and becomes the camp mascot. Elsewhere, war tidings grow ominous for the Japanese.

Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

I rented this because it is a favorite film of Matthew Preston, and I see how it has shaped him, and why he loves it. The film never fails to be interesting, even in those overdone Spielberg moments that make your eyes roll. A large part of its power comes from the set design, which creates a convincing world: You feel like you could enter the internment camp and walk from building to building and recognize every room, every face you saw. The actors are all good, especially young Christian Bale, a master of accents even back then.

When I watched the film, I was under the impression it was successful, widely respected, and had won Best Picture. Afterwards I learned that it was a flop, pissed on by the critics who distrusted Spielberg's attempts to grow up, and was shut out of the major categories by the similarly-titled "The Last Emperor." That was too bad for Spielberg at the time, but it's to our benefit now; we get to enjoy this overlooked gem, this Best Picture that never was, with an open mind. Rent it and see for yourself; it has so much to like and admire.

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