It's not exactly the case that Empire of the Sun is Steven Spielberg's most "divisive" movie, in any useful sense of that word (that's almost certainly A.I. Artificial Intelligence). It's something a little bit weirder than that: a movie that nobody really pointedly dislikes, unless they're already suspicious of the director's tendency towards sentimental manipulation, but only a small number of people have much of an opinion about beyond a sort of vague memory that it exists. But the people who love it, love it. Speaking entirely anecdotally, you understand, I've found that it's a film that, if somebody responds to it much at all, it's probably one of their very favorite Spielberg movies of all. Take me, for example: it's in my Spielberg Top 5 (and yes, of course I have a ranked list of all the Spielberg movies, what sort of list-addicted nerd do you take me for), and the idea that it would somehow reside in anybody's esteem as "one of the attempts to make grown-up film before things clicked with Schindler's List" and nothing more than that seems positively absurd.

But that being said, this is certainly not an A-list Spielberg film; I have dark suspicions that it might not even be B-list. A pity, in both cases, because it's pretty damn terrific: the best mix in his directorial career between typical Spielbergian flourishes of audience-friendly spectacle and seriousness of intent. If later dramatic triumphs like Munich and Lincoln are great in large part because the find the filmmaker burying his natural inclinations as a filmmaker, Empire of the Sun is great because those inclinations fit the material extremely well (it undoubtedly helps matters that, like Munich and Lincoln, Empire has a script by a tremendously gifted playwright - Tom Stoppard, in this case, adapting a semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard). It's a film about a boy, for a start, and one of Spielberg's finest gifts, at multiple points throughout his career, was his ability to direct child actors, and to make a film that adopts the perspective, lending gravity and sincerity to his depictions of childhood. The famous example is certainly E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, in which the director and cinematographer Allen Daviau (who also shot Empire, their final collaboration) frame all of the scenes using the normal language of medium shots and such, but brought down to the height of their young protagonist, blocking all of the adult world out with the top of the frame. That same basic idea is used in Empire of the Sun, but it's too complex to say that it thus subscribes entirely to the point of view of its main character 12-year-old James Graham (Christian Bale, in his feature debut at the age of 13).

Part of the genius of the movie, indeed, lies in its alignment with James's perspective, depicting only things he sees, and even to a certain degree how he sees them - it's very common for the movie to depict explosions and other acts of warfare with a certain painterly romanticism that exactly lines up with how the boy thinks of battle, along with his fuzzy, unformed awareness of the differences between Japan, China, and the United States in the Sino-Japanese War and World War II - while shading the events so depicted such that the grown-ups in the audience (and it's very much a grown-up picture) can perceive the distance between what James perceives and what's actually happening. This is most intense in film's first half-hour, when he's living in Shanghai with his parents (Emily Richard and Rupert Frazer), and completely oblivious to the way that the British contingent in that city, busily creating their sealed-off enclave of Europe, is a perversity based in willfully ignoring the population surrounding their nice little country homes. There's a great sequence in which the Grahams are caught in a traffic jam on the way to a costume ball, as are several other British families; the sight of so many cars full of people in gaudy colors and make-up, looking fitfully out at the heaving mass of dirty people around their chrome and glass bubbles, is perfectly-executed irony of a sort that only the 1987 Spielberg could have handled: too much later in his career, he'd have insisted on it with a much heavier touch, while earlier, he'd have probably glossed over it altogether, preferring boys' own adventure stories to political cynicism.

For Empire of the Sun is, structurally, a boy's adventure: separated from his parents with Shanghai is overtaken by the Japanese, James is first able to hide, scavenging food and supplies from abandoned houses, until he finally crosses paths with the black marketeers Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano). It's not too long before the three of them are captured and sent to a prison camp, where after three years, James - now "Jim" - has thoroughly assimilate to life as a POW, helping out everyone in the British sector while performing useful errands for Basie's operation in the American sector. All the while, the boy harbors a deep love for the airplanes that fly overhead so often, breathlessly romanticising the grace and bravery of the Japanese pilots.

The shift from 1941 to '45 is, admittedly, pretty rough, and it takes the movie a long while to find its feet again (that Bale obviously doesn't age during the gap is inevitable, and even useful in a certain way, but it doesn't ease the immediate impression that the film has gone off the rails). Overall, in fact, I find the middle POW camp sequence to be the least-interesting part of the film, and I will confess to being grateful that it was chopped down so much as has been reported: at 152 minutes, the final cut of Empire of the Sun isn't a slog, but it's certainly not a breeze, and stretching things out would not have been any good. That being said, the final sequence wouldn't have worked without it, and the final sequence is utterly fantastic: as Japan starts to lose the war in earnest, the camp is shut down, and the prisoners free to go as they will, with Jim's sense of dislocation turning into a state of existential darkness that pushes him out of childhood in a way that even three years of privation in a prisoner camp weren't able to. It's here that the film pays off having a too-young Jim (he's presumably 15 or 16 at this point, and Bale wasn't even a particularly old-looking 13-year-old): the sense of disconnect between the suffering depicted and the innocent suffering through it is far more intense, the younger that innocent is. It helps that Bale was already a fantastic actor, and his performance here is, undoubtedly, one of the all-time great works of child acting, unusually thoughtful and precise in its physical dimension, and controlled and tight where it would be so easy to go big: his coldness towards Basie in their final scene together is subtle and piercing in ways that child performances simply don't as a rule, attain.

Empire of the Sun is thus almost entirely a character drama more than a war film (the approach of all Spielberg's "serious" war pictures, though none of them, not even Schindler's List, is this character-driven), though inasmuch as its central character arc is about the leaching effect that WWII had on one child's personality, it can be safely regarded as anti-war. Its gestures in the direction of genre film elements are largely cosmetic and related to its program of exploring Jim's perspective: above all, its fetishisation of military airplanes, the most overtly and specifically Spielbergian gesture in the movie, is more about the shape and elegance of the vehicles than their military application. Most of the film's most self-consciously "big" shots involve planes, and several of its most important emotional beats are preceded or followed by, or are cotangent with, plane sequences (it's not shocking, in light of all this, that Spielberg's next-film-but-one was Always, another "planes are pretty" movie with considerably less meat to its bones). Because for all that it's sober and serious, for all that John Williams's score purposefully stays away from the aching romanticism of his classic Spielberg scores - there's no original theme that unifies the movie; instead, the film's musical hook is the Welsh lullaby "Suo GΓ’n", and it's used as a narrative motif as much as an aural one - instead creating a soundscape of disquiet and pensiveness, for all that the final sequences find Bale at his most terrifyingly intense, this is still and all a Steven Spielberg movie from a time when he was still concerned with transporting the audience. It's not remotely as problematic in this regard as his previous work, The Color Purple, if indeed it's problematic at all: the director always seems to be aware of what he's doing to elevate the material into exciting cinema, and doing it strictly to keep us yoked to the naΓ―ve personality of Jim himself.

It's a delicate balancing act, but in the end, Empire of the Sun stays entirely clear of whatever tacky sentiment Spielberg is accused of by his detractors, while also avoiding the po-faced solemnity that he's also accused of by his detractors, in other movies. If it commits any sins, they are of being a bit of a light moviegoing experience for such grave subject matter, but then again - this isn't a war movie. It is about a child, delighted by ideas of bravery and excitement that his sheltered life has kept him from having to encounter directly, coming to realise how serious the things that he's treated so trivially actually are. In this, it is a perfect metaphor for Spielberg's own career at the point it was made.