The Man-Child Who Fell to Earth EMPIRE OF THE SUN

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He was a golden boy. "Dream of flying," his mother urged, and the boy did. Gifted and coddled, he could pick up any one of his toy planes and send it soaring, ever higher, never landing, as buoyant and restless as his imagination. Then reality brought his world crashing to earth. The boy, poor indomitable thing, had a lot to learn about gravity.

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In Empire of the Sun, the boy is James Graham, eleven-year-old son of an English merchant in Shanghai at the first shell burst of World War II in the Pacific. Behind the camera is Jim's spiritual cousin, Steven Spielberg, 39. Spielberg's trials of the past couple of years have been nowhere so cataclysmic as those that befell Jim, his family and millions of other refugees under the imperial Japanese boot. Still, they must have injected an unwelcome dose of maturity into the man with a lock on childhood. The films produced recently under his aegis have fizzled at the box office. His TV series, Amazing Stories, limped through its two-year run. Could he ever fail? He could. Not enough to hurt, just enough to dim his luster.

So Spielberg decided to take the manly course of growing up onscreen. Adapting J.G. Ballard's fictionalized memoir of his days spent scavenging for survival in a Japanese concentration camp, Spielberg and Playwright Tom Stoppard (Travesties, The Real Thing) do a reprise of the director's favorite narrative recipe. A child is separated from his parents, confronts adversity and is reunited with them. But here the child is not abducted by poltergeists < or locked in a De Lorean time warp. Young Jim (Christian Bale) loses his way because, in the tumbledown panic of escape from Shanghai, he reaches for his precious toy airplane instead of holding onto his mother's hand for dear life. Once on his own, he leaps into the grasping arms of a scurvy American merchant seaman (John Malkovich). Jim might be an Oliver Twist auditioning for Fagin, or a Pinocchio begging to visit Stromboli's summer camp.

In war, even in this Spielberg war, wisdom brings bitter lessons. It teaches Jim that he may -- must -- filch food from the dying and take shoes from the dead. When P-51s zoom above him, the plane-crazy boy crash-dives into delirium; his dreams have singed him by flying too close, poisoned him with their oil and cordite. Alone with an ailing woman (Miranda Richardson), who stokes his first erotic fantasies, Jim looks up and sees the atomic blast over Hiroshima as a blazing crystal vision. Even at the end, when a plane drops bundles of Spam and Luckies like a Christmas pinata, Jim knows his perspective will be forever darkened. No child can see all this and hold onto childhood.

Any picaresque epic seems longer than its running time, and this one eventually begins wandering, like Jim, in search of an elusive climax of reconciliation. But this is caviling in the face of two splendid young artists: Bale, 13, who carries the character of Jim through four years of hell and puberty, and Spielberg, who again proves that he is our top picturemaker. He has energized each frame with allusive legerdemain and an intelligent density of images and emotions. He has met the demands of the epic form with a mature spirit and wizardly technique. Spielberg has dreamed of flying before, and this time he earns his wings.

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