Wow. Casper said that this was his second favorite Spielberg film after Jaws; I can see why. Empire of the Sun touched on so many themes simultaneously--it was incredibly poignant and I loved it. Also, CHRISTIAN BALE IS A FUCKING CHAMP; probably best acting I've ever seen from a child.
In true Spielberg fashion, this film centers on a kid--a 12-year-old boy named Jamie Graham. Jamie is the wealthy, spoiled result of a high-class, socially-elite couple; they live in China during the Pacific War. Jamie LOVES planes, but also loves authority. Graham's household fridge is always well-stocked with beautiful cakes, pies, and snacks. The house has servants and Jamie has learned--probably from his parents--to treat them as inferiors. Jamie requests a butter biscuit before bed and, when refused, he demands, "You have to do what I say."
Jamie's father had been warned to go someplace safe, like Singapore, but he dismissed these cautions and paid for it. The family gets split up and Jamie begins his long journey back to his childhood home. He finds it is now "property" of the Japanese; the fridge is empty, the pool is filled with leaves, and the master bedroom is unsightly. He stays there for a while; doing all the things he was never allowed to before. Then, he runs out of food and runs into Basil. Basil is a rugged larcenist who takes Jamie under his wing, not out of the kindness in his heart, but because he thinks Jamie may have something useful to offer.
From here on out, Basil becomes a father figure and a teacher; he tells Jamie that if his life changes, so should his name. So, from then on out, Jamie went by Jim. Basil wants to drop Jim because he can't afford to feed him, but Jim offers up his house and all the wealth he came from. When they go to Jim's house, they find the Japs have taken residence and the Japs take the men to what looks like an abandoned warehouse. This is where they stay while they wait to go to the internment camps.
Jim is learning to treat death as a fact of life; he collects things and the food bowls of those who die in the warehouse to secure more rations for himself; he's becoming a survivor. We meet an upper-class couple, the Victors, who looks eerily similar to Jamie's parents. The first transport truck comes and Jim is not picked to board, but Basil is. Basie pays no attention to a screaming Jim, but Jim hears they're headed to Soo Chow--where Jamie's ~country club~ is! He knows how to get there, making himself indispensable.
They arrive at the camp; it's located next to an air field. Jim explores and touches the planes that touch his heart and his dreams. He has a beautiful moment with the Japanese air men. Fast forward and Jim has formed a real community and a real routine in the camp. He has been getting schooled by the camp doctor and has been helping him with his many patients. Spielberg fits dysfunctional family dynamic in all of his films. Jamie loses his family, so Jim gets a new one--a surrogate family made up of people who he meets in the camp. Mrs. Victor becomes his mother, Dr. Rawlings becomes his father, and Basie who begins as a dad-like figure is reduced to an incapable caretaker.
Jim lives in the British dorm, but is trying to earn enough points with Basie, so he'd let him move in the American dorm. He has a coming of age when he notices Mrs. Victor as a woman instead of a motherly figure.
Then, the reprisals; Dr. Rawlins is desperately trying to protect the hospital, but Sargent Nagata is determined to bust out its windows. Rawlins gets physical in his defense and pays for it with a beating. Jim comes running, utters something in Japanese bows to Nagata on his hands and knees. Nagata stops the beating and walks away.
Basie says the men will eat pheasant for Thanksgiving because there's one just beyond the wire. Jim willingly offers to lay a trap for the animal to gain favor with Basie. In reality, Basie is just having Jim test if there are landmines beyond the wire or if it's just scare tactics; he's readying his escape. Jim sets the "trap" without being caught and returns as an American Hero. He moves right next to Basie.
Nagata comes to Basie's corner; he begins to disrespect his shit as Jim mimes Basie to smile and bow (V respectful boy). Nagata beats the shit outta him regardless--guess it was just one of those days. Basie spends a stretch in the hospital on the verge of dying. He runs back to his quaters and sees of his stuff had been stolen in his absense.
Jim views the kamikazee pilot traditions with awe; he salutes the men and sings his song. Most beautiful part of the movie. Hands down.
Then the Americans gain the upper hand in the war. There's an airstrike on the camp. Basie and Dainty have escaped. Jim has a mental breakdown and Rawlin's is the one wiping away Jim's tears. After the airstrike, Jim moves back into his room with the Victors. And then, something miraculous happened. One by one, the guards started leaving ; they were free.
The ex-campers are taken to stadium of luxury items. He sticks with Mrs. Victor who has lost her husband. She's near death and makes Jim stay with her for the night. When she dies, a brilliant light illuminated the sky and Jamie believes it is her soul going to heaven. Turns out it was just the atom bombs.
The war is over, Jamie is taken to an adoption center, and he reunites with his parents. The last shot is of his suitcase in the water--representative of a new life, new name, and new journey. His childhood innocence was packed up and thrown away--assuming his experiences have reshaped Jamie to have a newfound appreciation for community, family, and privilege.