It’s always a pleasure to see someone push themselves to a greater level of achievement, especially if they already have an impressive list of accomplishments.
I felt that pleasure often on November 16, 2015 at the Michigan Theater while watching Empire of the Sun, which was directed by Steven Spielberg.
This 1987 historical drama and his 1985 adaptation of the novel The Color Purple were new territory for Spielberg, who by then had built up a formidable résumé of special effects-filled blockbusters.
But in Empire of the Sun, he didn’t have a gimmick as the central focus of his story, like the shark in Jaws, or an alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.
No, this time he had to make the people come alive as more than just characters in a rollercoaster plot. You had to feel the human drama in their lives as they navigated the treacherous waves of World War II.
I first noticed this new level of directorial skill during an early scene where the English residents of Shanghai are driving to a Christmas costume party.
Spielberg switched back and forth between the decorated faces of the English in the safety of their limousines, and the faces of the common, everyday Chinese who crowded around the cars, anxious to get a glimpse of a world that was only a dream to them.
That scene showed the rootless nature of the English residents’ lives in China, and helped prepare the viewer for the much greater disruptions that occurred in their lives after Japan occupied Shanghai.
Spielberg’s expertise with human drama was also shown in stunning crowd scenes where you saw individuals swept along in massive tides of change. Many times the camera would slowly pull back to gradually reveal the broad magnitude of emotion that propelled a scene.
An aerial shot from a rooftop showed a chaotic scene on one street, followed by a 90-degree swivel of the camera that revealed an equally chaotic scene on another street. Another scene focused on different individuals who were part of a long march from one internment area to another.
Scenes like these helped me better appreciate the skills of Spielberg as a producer/director. To make such scenes happen, you must be skilled at planning, coordination of activities, and crowd management. It’s more than just asking an actor to emote a little more for the next take.
I watched Empire of the Sun from the balcony of the Michigan, which helped me better appreciate its epic scope. I was particularly impressed with the set designs, which showed the damage inflicted on buildings and other structures by war and neglect.
The balcony was also the best vantage point for one of the most crowd-pleasing scenes in Empire of the Sun—the bombing of the internment camp near the end of the movie. Every time I see this movie, I excitedly await that great moment when a very young Christian Bale shouts, “P-51, Cadillac of the sky!”
That scene was enhanced by some slow motion and soaring music. It continued Spielberg’s gift for creating moments of transcendent cinematic wonder, like the final scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.
Seeing this movie on the big screen at the Michigan was a powerful experience, capped off by the beautiful music of the closing credits that resonated throughout the acoustically rich spaciousness of the main auditorium.
The day after I saw Empire of the Sun, I went to see Spielberg’s latest movie, the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. I wanted to complete an informal survey of Spielberg’s career that I started a couple of weeks ago with A Spielberg Halloween.
I saw almost no difference between the cinematic craftsmanship of Empire of the Sun and Bridge of Spies. So it’s fair to say that in 1987, the 41-year-old Spielberg had mastered the art of popular moviemaking enough to lay the groundwork for all of the different movies that followed, from Jurassic Park to Schindler’s List to A.I.
About the only difference that I saw were the special effects in the aerial scenes. In Bridge of Spies, they had that plastic digital texture that were less realistic than what I saw in Empire of the Sun, where it looked like real planes were used.
Spielberg has become a master of creating epic images of the past, starting with his early movies that recalled the fun and excitement of Saturday afternoon serials and science fiction movies of the 1950s.
Then he began to apply his formidable skills and talents to more historically rooted projects. This passionate mission to see the human face of the past was present in both Empire of the Sun and Bridge of Spies.
Empire of the Sun was part of the Spielberg: Man & Monsters series that has run all autumn at the Michigan and State theaters. It concludes on November 23 with another historical drama (Munich) and on November 28, with a late night double feature of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.