The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Empire of the Sun

The story of a boy forced to live on his own during World War II would come to influence Lucasfilm's Star Wars Rebels.

Steven Spielberg has always been a large influence on Star Wars and his 1987 film, Empire of the Sun, is no different. Based on an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun is set in Shanghai at the onset of World War II. It tells the story of Jim, a young English boy played by Christian Bale. He’s separated from his parents as the war begins and it shows his struggles to survive the war on his own. He’s thrown in with lowlifes like Basie and Frank, played by John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano, and then placed into an internment camp and left to fend for himself.

At a panel at Salt Lake Comic Con this year, Pablo Hidalgo remarked that Empire of the Sun was a huge influence on Ezra Bridger’s character and I thought that was a perfect opportunity to revisit one of my favorite Spielberg films.

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It’s easy to imagine Ezra and Jim as kindred spirits in the early days of their orphanage. Empire of the Sun shows the stunning lengths a kid would have to go to in order to survive in an occupation. Japanese-occupied Shanghai feels every bit as oppressive as the Empire’s occupation of Lothal. In fact, it would be easy enough to describe the film by imagining Ezra orphaned on Lothal and sent to Tarkintown to live until the war ended.

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In fact, one could almost take the street smarts of Jim by the end of the film and imagine that this is the sort of situation that Ezra lived through before we meet him in Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion. It takes that idea of cinematic semiotics we’ve talked about before for movies like The Searchers and 2001: A Space Odyssey and shows us how Dave Filoni was able to learn from the best. We can take Empire of the Sun and apply that to Ezra’s character and experience.

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In one particular sequence in Empire of the Sun, Jim is hustling around the internment camp, trading one thing for another so as to benefit himself the most. The way the sequence is staged would remind anyone of Ezra’s early days on Lothal, stealing jogun fruit to survive. Many pointed out Ezra’s existence felt very much like Aladdin, but watching Empire of the Sun, it’s easy to see why the comparison to the war film is much more apt.

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Another theme in Empire of the Sun that carries over into Rebels is the search for one’s parents. Like Ezra, Jim feels like his parents are still out there somewhere, and survival is a means of waiting out the clock until his parents could be found. These themes were explored in the first two seasons of Rebels, but Ezra’s parents met a much more tragic end than Jim’s. Jim offers many clues to what the production team might have been thinking to what Ezra’s new life without parents must have been like.

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The influence might go both ways between Empire of the Sun and Star Wars, though. In what could have been a nod back to Return of the Jedi, John Malkovich’s character, Basie, lives in a room in the internment camp with a massive picture window that is shaped just like the window behind Palpatine’s throne on the second Death Star. From here, Basie holds court, practically ruling the underground of the camp.

Empire of the Sun is a moving film that combines many of the flavors of story that Spielberg is best known for. It has the journey of discovery from a kid in a situation that’s over his head, it’s set in World War II, and it deals very much with a loss of innocence. Watching it side-by-side with episodes of Rebels, it’s impossible to avoid the comparisons. Since the film is so good on its own, it’s one I’d recommend watching regardless. Add the Star Wars ties and it’s a must see film for fans of the saga. It’s been rated PG in the United States by the MPAA, though the film can get a little intense and emotional. It is set during a war, after all.

Availability: Empire of the Sun is widely available on Blu-ray and DVD, and can be streamed on most streaming platforms for a modest rental fee.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of SithYou can also follow him on Twitter.

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