Empire of the Sun is an epic film, kind of like a novel. When I think of an “epic,” I picture something that’s life affirming, occurs over a long period of time and puts characters through the ringer so that they are transformed by the end. The easiest way to show that transformation is by simply making the character look different.
The story is about a young boy named Jamie (Christian Bale), who later goes by Jim, just to reinforce the idea that he’s a different person.
Here’s Jamie at the beginning of the story:
…and here is, now going by Jim, near the end of the story:
Jim becomes, in many ways, a shell of his former self, but we also watch him grow and become resourceful and more kind. He can take care of himself in a way he couldn’t before. Whereas the before, is when he was with his family and they were more or less happy, it is still presented as something that needs changing. By that I mean, the story gave Jim what he needed to evolve, although he probably didn’t need quite so much death and destruction.
When the story begins, Jamie is the son of two very wealthy parents who live behind large brick walls, basically in a castle. Jamie witness everything through a bubble, often symbolized by the windows the car he and his parents are chauffeured through town in. That same car will literally be crushed by a tank later on, soon Jamie is separated from his parents.
Coming home one day, Jamie sees a homeless man sitting outside their home, and his gaze lingers on this man. Jamie is a kid with a wild imagination, and he seems preoccupied with a multitude of ideas. Despite telling a family friend that he is an atheist, he wonders about the possibility of a higher power, he’s in awe of planes and he’s not sure who to be rooting for in the war. Jamie also has a bit of an attitude, making the family’s maid/helper make him a midnight snack, telling her that she “has to.” He’s kind of a prick.
This all sets up the parts of Jamie that need to change. After losing contact with his parents in a frenzied crowd, he returns home, hoping they will return. He’s still reluctant to leave his little bubble, even spending time biking around the house, pretending everything is normal despite starving and waiting. The maid returns, stealing a dresser from the house, and when Jamie catches her, demanding to know what she’s doing, she slaps him because what does it matter anymore.
Whether it’s social roles or buildings or social order, Jamie is watching everything implode. The movie opens with a few coffins floating gently into the ocean until a large military ship slices through the water and knocks the coffins around like wind chimes. It signals immediately that this film is about the war boldly interrupting life as people know it. Nothing matters when the war breaks out.
Jamie fends for himself on the street, but that doesn’t go well. It’s not until he meets Frank (Joe Pantoliano) and Basie (John Malkovich) that he briefly has a place to sleep and some food to eat. Frank and Basie live inside an old, unusable military ship, spending their days collecting anything they can sell. When Jamie enters their life, Basie runs his hands all over his hat, private school crested blazer and even pries open his mouth, looking for a gold tooth. Jamie is just a potential money maker for him. Jamie, meanwhile, develops a liking to Basie (not so much Frank), mostly because Basie offers protection from the jungle that has become the real world. He sees a father figure in Basie, but Basie prepares to cut Jamie loose until Jamie says he’ll take them to his old neighborhood where there’s plenty of expensive crap to steal (after the outbreak of the war, everything is basically crap and extraneous).
This leads them into a trap, however, as Jamie’s house is now occupied by a group of Japanese soldiers. The three of them are taken in and shoved into some sort of Red Cross/prison warehouse where they sleep in a large room on small cots. Basie continues his scrounging ways, prying the shoes off of a dead woman, but Jamie pesters him to stop, horrified that he would do such a thing.
This is when Jamie begins to learn to do what it takes to survive. When select people, including Basie, get spots on a truck heading… somewhere, Jamie forces his way on the truck by promising to help the driver with directions when he doesn’t seem to know where he’s heading. This leads to a pretty amusing scene in which Jamie stands up front with the driver, both struggling with a large map, similar to a scene early in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Jamie is energetic, screaming at the driver where to go. The driver suddenly slaps him, but Jamie responds by slapping the driver right back. The humor is a bit odd, but it fits within the film, particularly if you imagine it as through the lens of a child, like Jamie. The film takes these characters to a prison war camp, and it’s pretty dire, but Jamie is a go-getter. He’s always running around, helping people out and mainly staying busy. I think there’s part of him that really doesn’t understand what’s going on. Actually, a big part of him doesn’t understand the severity of what’s happening. To Jamie, at this point he’s Jim, it all is a game. Just like how Basie and Frank scrounge for whatever they can in order to sell it, Jim begins to make friends and barter goods, doing what he has to in order to survive.
The film becomes more grave, and there are several instances of Jim watching people die, taking their final breath. In one instance, the doctor within the prison camp (also a prisoner), has Jim pump on a woman’s chest while they lose her. In one final thrust, her eyes turn towards Jim, making him think he brought her back to life. The doctor tells him it was just the blood pumping into her brain from his thrust.
Later on Jim chooses to stay behind with a dying woman while others leave. The woman smiles, incredibly thankful for him to be there. The next morning he looks over her dead body and thinks he sees her spirit go to heaven, but it’s actually the atomic bomb. The third time Jim is with someone as they die, it’s a Japanese boy that he has slowly and quietly befriended. The boy shows Jim how to cut a mango, and Basie and his friends returns (a little unbelievably), and they shoot the boy, thinking he was trying to kill Jim.
Jim tries in vain to bring the boy back to life, convinced that he has that power. This scene comes after Basie has escaped the prison camp, abandoning Jim who has lost another parental figure.
In the end, Jim waits at a temporary orphanage where parents come looking for their children, lost during the war. Jim’s parents walk right by him, not recognizing him, but Jim also fails to recognize them. When his mother finally sees him, saying his name as if asking if it’s really him rather than knowing for sure, Jim slowly starts to grab at her face, her hair, her shirt, in a way reminiscent of Basie. But in Jim’s case, he’s making sure she’s real and not something he has imagined. Whereas Basie’s face-touching represented a treatment of Jim as less than human, Jim’s face-touching is him trying to make sure his mother really is human. Basically, everything in Jim’s life has been invaded and hollowed out like an animal carcass, used as a tool for someone else’s survival. Jim himself has been forced to live this way, but when he sees his mother again, he is realizing that there is still something whole left. Not everything is hollowed out and bare. His parents are still there, and his family proves to be the one thing still intact.
The film ends by showing a suitcase Jim had discarded earlier. It floats in the water like the coffins at the beginning of the story, showing what Jim has left behind, like the corpse of his life as a prisoner of war. So essentially, there is a connection drawn between the coffins and the suitcase, but the opening image represented a rude interruption to what was once a peaceful life, and the final image represents some sort of closure an ending to Jim’s tortured existence. Discarded luggage is highly symbolic. Just like the end of The Darjeeling Limited, the discarded luggage shows a character freeing themselves of some sort of restrictions. Jim’s briefcase contained things from his past life as a young boy in a sheltered home. Everywhere he goes, even in the prison camp, he carries that with him, hanging photos on the wall as if to recreate a sense of home. The end of the film shows that he has let that life go. It can be interpreted as a positive in the sense that he doesn’t need that kind of comfort anymore, he’s grown up. But it can also be a negative because he doesn’t want that comfort. When your only goal is to survive, it reduces you to your more basic, primal instincts. It’s nice to be defined by hobbies and things that you spend your time doing or thinking about, but if you become like Jim, those all disappear. He exists to not die, by the end of the story. So the suitcase could also represent a rude interruption to a once imaginative childhood, now infected by the war.
The scene in which Jim befriends the Japanese boy is a brief welcome back to life. Then Basie’s crony shoots the kid, and Jim is reminded that they live in a new world where being alive isn’t about living, it’s just about not dying. In that kind of world killing becomes a lot more justifiable, because as long as you don’t die, you’re okay.
But in the end Jim is reunited with his parents, and there seems to be some hope that he can return to a productive, fulfilling life, though it feels like part of him is lost forever (like the suitcase).