In his new film, "Empire of the Sun," you can feel Steven Spielberg trying to reach into a deeper part of himself, to get past the boy-genius image that the public has of him -- and that perhaps he has of himself -- and bring the adult artist to life.
The movie, which is taken from J.G. Ballard's novel based on his own experiences as a boy in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, is mounted on a gigantic scale; set in and around Shanghai, it gives us a whole society in tumultuous upheaval. For Spielberg to work on an expansive canvas is nothing new, but his attempt to ground his story emotionally and give it real psychological weight is. With "Empire of the Sun," Spielberg has tried to make an epic that retains its human dimensions. And in half of this, the director has succeeded: He's made his epic, and some of it is brilliant. But the psychological aspects of the film are stunted. Even Spielberg's boy hero seems to have eluded him.
Ballard's tale is at its root a wartime coming-of-age story: It's about the forces that assault childhood. The central character is a precocious 11-year-old English boy named Jim (Christian Bale) who lives with his parents in the suburban British quarter of Shanghai's International Settlement. At the film's beginning, on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, Jim is too absorbed in his boy's adventure fantasies to pay much mind to the gathering war clouds.
The early scenes leading up to the invasion -- as well as the invasion itself -- are tense and focused. Spielberg's camera -- his cinematographer here is Allen Daviau, who also shot "E.T." -- plunges us right into the paths of coolies and rickshaw drivers. There's a fevered anxiety in these scenes. And then, pulling back his camera Spielberg creates a more poised and watchful mood, almost a state of suspended animation. And that only heightens the suspense.
When the invasion finally begins, the press of the stampeding crowds becomes so great that Jim is separated from his parents. Desperate for food, he's later taken in by Basie (John Malkovich, looking like a unkempt catfish) and his sidekick, Frank (Joe Pantoliano), a pair of American merchant seamen who scavenge the area for whatever loot they can find. Initially, they plan to sell Jim, but there are no takers (he's too skinny), and eventually the three of them are captured by the Japanese and imprisoned.
Once the locale shifts to the main prison camp the movie begins to deteriorate. The scenes that follow focus on the traumas that Jim and the other prisoners must endure, and they're meant to emphasize Jim's suffering. Instead, they demonstrate Jim's resiliency and indomitable energy. Jim seems to thrive in prison, and, taking tips from Basie -- who's a combination of King Rat and Fagin -- he negotiates the lanes of supply at the camp, both official and unofficial, with an enviable shrewdness and savvy.
But the movie, which was adapted by Tom Stoppard (and uncredited others), suffers from more than mere tonal fuzziness. There are scenes throughout -- like the one in which the Americans, who have adopted Jim as one of their own, send him crawling under the wire to see if the Japanese have planted land mines out beyond the fence -- that are so awkwardly staged that it's impossible to determine what's going on or how they're meant to be taken.
Ineptitude, though, is hardly Spielberg's crucial flaw: If anything, he suffers from a surfeit of talent. There isn't a moment in the film that is blandly or routinely directed. And in some of the movie's big set pieces, especially his staging of an American attack on a Japanese airfield, you feel his technical mastery in every frame, and the sheer raw energy he packs into his compositions can make you feel breathless, intoxicated by motion and speed.
Spielberg is a virtuoso performer, and virtuosity can't be dismissed. But what "Empire of the Sun" proves is that it can have its limitations. It would be too glib to suggest that Spielberg is a victim of his own gifts. But too much of the film has been conceived as a showcase for his brilliance. It's overburdened with epiphanies.
Though "Empire of the Sun" is a profoundly perplexing, frustrating object, there are things in it to marvel at and enjoy. And there are smaller moments -- like the scene in the camp hospital in which a young woman dies, and then, momentarily, seems to come back to life and stare Jim right in the eyes -- that are as complex as any Spielberg has ever directed.
Still, though Spielberg is trying to push beyond his limitations, to enlarge his world, his imagination appears to be as bundled up in Hollywood dream visions as ever. The symbolic meaning of Jim's saga may have hit especially close to home for the director: Fundamentally, the story is a tragedy about the end of childhood. And for Spielberg, this may be the essential theme, the essential tragedy.
Ballard's original was a pretty tough piece of work. But Spielberg has neither the inclination nor the stomach to merge with Ballard's vision of starvation and rotting death. It's as if he looked into the heart of his grown-up material and flinched.
In telling the story, Spielberg has revealed more about his own deep-seated ambivalence over leaving his childhood world behind than he may have realized. It's a film about the moviemaker's anxiety over growing up. In "Empire" and his other films too, adults carry a kind of taint: They're outside the hallowed circle of innocence. And with this picture, Spielberg signals his realization that to grow as an artist he must venture outside that circle as well. But the movie is also a symbol of his reluctance; it leaves him caught between the two worlds, with one foot in the circle and one foot out.
Empire of the Sun, at area theaters, is rated PG.