Steven Spielberg’s cinema of consolation has an unusual way of dodging all my usual defenses, which is just another way of saying that I’d buy more schmaltz from Spielberg than from any other director. But in case of his Empire of the Sun (1987) I remained more resistant than usual. The story of Jim (Christian Bale), a British boy who gets separated from his parents in WW2 Shanghai, had some very strong points, but I think Spielberg was trying too hard to avoid hopelessness the material ultimately provokes. The result is very strange: a downhill slide towards moral numbness caused by war, played out like a boy’s adventure tale (Jim’s father wears Captain Hook’s outfit at one point: a prelude to a movie that will come 4 years after).
What I consider Spielberg’s biggest talent, and what comes off well even in this movie, is his ability to desexualize child's imagination to the point of reaching a moral clarity that belongs purely to the mythical. Puerility is Spielberg’s big theme, yes, but it’s never contaminated by sexual confusion. When Jim sings a song late in the movie, his falsetto isn’t broken by any signs of mutation – even though he matured in every other way in the course of the action.
It’s not an accident that Spielberg sanitized so much of Bob Zemeckis’ and Bob Gale’s raunchiness when he was making 1941 (1979). What’s wonderful about him, though, is that his shrinking from sex doesn’t feel like bailing out on adulthood as such – it’s not a neurotic denial. His drive towards what’s pure is genuine and has a religious dimension to it that I deeply revere, even though it takes him far away from any territory one would label as realistic.