Empire of the Sun ★★★★½

or "Little James-San Wants To Fly". People giving stick for Spielberg making a superhero movie should probably consider BLACKHAWK in the context of it being at least his fourth WWII aviation-obsessed film (fifth if you count TINTIN), just one of the many weird contextual associations I made as a result of catching up with this three decades too late. Perhaps it's a result of the implausibility inherent in the Spielberg/Stoppard/Ballard marriage, one that renders an early sinuous shot of a car hood with unintended frisson, or just the general associative motor which makes a shot of an emaciated Bale evoke THE MACHINIST or made me briefly consider this a prequel to RESCUE DAWN.

Anyway, all that aside, this is bloody terrific, largely devoid of the Spielbergisms that make me choke on certain of his films while adroitly demonstrating his abilities as choreographing mass chaos, fortunate enough to lean on an extraordinary child actor who rises to the challenge, and featuring at least two of the best setpieces of Spielberg's career (the night bombings outside the camp and the later bombing of the airfields). And while it's one naff supporting performance (Jim's mum), a couple stray plot threads (why does Jim move back to the British cabin?) and a couple John Williams flourishes away from being unassailable, it's damn extraordinary.

I hadn't realized until afterwards that David Lean had worked on EMPIRE OF THE SUN for a year, but I feel like there's something of his DNA in it that helps merge the unlikely sensibilities brought together here. And perhaps I have given Spielberg too little credit in the past in re those sensibilities. The scene of the young Japanese boy finally preparing to take his first flight is one of the darkest things I've seen in a long time, and Jim's cultural confusion as the film goes on is not far behind. And while, say, MUNICH or WAR OF THE WORLDS have their share of dark moments, the coupling with a restraint absent in later Spielberg here is something to behold. I surrender.