Childlike wonder underlies Spielberg's latest. `Empire of the Sun' brims with boyish high spirits, despite prison-camp setting

Steven Spielberg's new movie, ``Empire of the Sun,'' was inspired by real events: the adventures of a British boy held in an Asian prison camp during World War II. Clearly, this story continues the move away from fantasy that Spielberg started in ``The Color Purple'' a couple of years ago. But this doesn't mean his imagination has become less flighty than before.

He's still the tale spinner who gave us ``E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' and ``Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' and his glossy, Pop Art style is still rooted in a sense of childlike wonder at the world. ``Empire of the Sun'' is very much a Spielberg movie, full of the exaggerated images and boyish high spirits that have marked his most popular films.

It's also a production on a very large scale. Spielberg filmed it over a four-month period in Spain and England as well as China itself, where no major Hollywood studio production has been shot before. The cast, headed by American star John Malkovich and 13-year-old newcomer Christian Bale, includes about 15,000 extras parading through its carefully choreographed scenes.

As an exercise in high-cost and high-tech filmmaking, it's as impressive as anything Spielberg has given us. Yet it raises the question of whether he has the maturity to handle a story with serious and even grim historical overtones - or whether he's an eternal adolescent who'd do better to stick with Indiana Jones and the Goonies.

``Empire of the Sun'' is based on an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, who lived through experiences like those endured by Jim, the story's hero. At the start, Jim is a contented and spoiled boy who enjoys a comfortable life with his parents in the British sector of Shanghai's international settlement.

When war breaks out in 1941, his family prepares to evacuate the city. Jim is separated from the others, though, and forced to scavenge for food and shelter. Things grow so desperate that he tries surrendering to the Japanese invaders who control the area, but they have little interest in such a young prisoner of war. Eventually he and his new American friend, a cynical and self-serving man named Basie, are thrown into a large Japanese prison camp.

Survival is still difficult there, but at least Jim finds a bit of order and companionship. He remains in the camp for three years before the war ends and he's set free - into a turbulent world that's no more safe or hospitable than prison was.

Spielberg has filmed ``Empire of the Sun'' with great care, paying keen attention to every detail of its time and place. If the film ultimately seems flat and superficial, it's because Spielberg just isn't the right filmmaker for this kind of tough historical subject. He deserves credit for leaving fantasy behind - in two consecutive films now - and looking compassionately at difficult themes of war, hardship, and imprisonment. But he constantly softens the material, giving it slick Hollywood twists so it won't make us uncomfortable.

A comparison with Ballard's novel shows how drastically Spielberg has reshaped the tone of the story. In the book, written by an author with firsthand knowledge, the Lunghua prison is a hideous place - a seething, corpse-littered nest of death, disease, and starvation. In the movie, it's more like a badly run summer camp. People suffer, yes, but life is full of bustling activities, and there's always time for a game of marbles or a swell conversation with a pal.

Some may excuse this change, on the ground that Spielberg is seeing the story through the eyes of a young, sturdy, high-spirited boy. This dodges the issue, though - since the eyes of that boy would surely take in the misery and decay all around him, even if he doesn't succumb to it physically or mentally.

Then too, Spielberg always appears to see his stories through young, sturdy, high-spirited eyes. Even when children aren't present as main characters, his trademarks as a director - heightened images, bold colors, storybook compositions - reveal his own sensibility to be profoundly and even obsessively childlike. The youthful character of Jim is surely one of the things that drew him to ``Empire of the Sun'' in the first place. This is fine, but a more mature filmmaker might have probed the effect of Lunghua's horror on the protagonist - instead of minimizing that horror and letting Jim galumph through it with hardly a care.

Even when he takes on material with dark and unsettling dimensions, Spielberg inevitably gravitates toward easy answers and facile resolutions. He showed this tendency in ``The Color Purple,'' where his filming seemed most enthusiastic in the early episodes - about children - and in the last portion, where (following Alice Walker's novel) he took a nose dive into overripe sentimentality.

He does it again in ``Empire of the Sun,'' which has too much childish buoyancy to serve the disturbing historical events it's ostensibly based on.

Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, which contains no hint of the literary brilliance that has distinguished his career as a playwright. Vastly better is the score by John Williams, bursting with the most exhilarating film music I've heard in years.

The picture is rated PG.

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