Empire of the Sun on DVD

Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1. Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, French). 152 minutes (film). 1987. Warner Bros. 89391 17532. PG. $24.98.

Steven Spielberg's epic Empire of the Sun is almost great. In fact, it is so almost-great that it generated in me a degree of unease when, 14 years after its theatrical release, I watched it on DVD and tried to figure out if it was the king of WWII classics or just another bloated naked emperor. Empire of the Sun was Spielberg's first shot at universal artistic acceptance, relevance, and, most notably, an Academy Award, but he seemed unable to decide whether he was David Lean or the same dude who produced The Goonies; the end result is a film annoyingly balanced between truly great and truly insipid cinematic moments.

Based on J. G. Ballard's quasi-autobiography, Empire of the Sun follows a privileged, young British boy named Jim (Christian Bale), separated from his parents during Japan's 1941 invasion of Shanghai, as he attempts to survive imprisonment in a Soo Chow internment camp. Jim's problem is that he is a boy without allegiance—he has never seen his English homeland, he admires the Japanese fighter pilots, and he worships a flawed American named Basie (a young John Malkovich conjuring up William Holden in Stalag 17). His conflicting loyalties drive Jim's lost-boy desperation in his transformation from schoolboy to king rat of Soo Chow. In the end (and in one of the film's few stirring moments), Jim ultimately finds some faith in himself by rejecting Basie, and knowingly letting slip any chance of regaining his childhood.

Unfortunately, too many of the film's more earnest moments are marred by over-directed Spielberg schlock or overwritten dialogue dropping unnaturally from Jim's mouth. It's like watching a promise never quite unfold, somewhere in the void between the brilliant Schindler's List and the abysmal Amistad. The only definitive and consistent bright spot is Christian Bale's enormous triumph in his first acting role.

The film transfer is pleasing, and the soundtrack is at some points breathtaking, especially when Jim first encounters the P-51 Mustangs zooming around in their attempt to liberate the Soo Chow camp. But the bonus material is devoid of compelling content. Besides a trailer, and sections devoted to cast, crew, and awards, there is only a decent documentary, particularly interesting when Spielberg discusses how he got permission to film in China. But little else differentiates this from standard DVD packages.