Empire of the Sun

Movie Information

In Brief: Empire of the Sun (1987) is Steven Spielberg still in his serious mode from The Color Purple (1985), and as serious Spielberg goes, you could do worse. It has nearly all of his strengths and weaknesses on full display. This story of the British imprisoned by the Japanese upon the fall of Shanghai — and centering on an adolescent boy (then-newcomer Christian Bale) — offers him a broad canvas on which to demonstrate his undeniable craft. It is a magnificent looking film and every inch a model of professionalism. But Spielberg, being Spielberg, has to make sure that it's all as big as possible, that all the right notes are hit and that the manipulations are gauged for maximum effect. Brilliantly achieved, yes, but also a little too machine-tooled. There's something just a bit impersonal about it. I suspect matters are not helped by Christian Bale, who spends the first stretch of the film inevitably making you want to box his ears. I'm not sure that was the idea — Spielberg's addiction to precocious children makes it hard to be certain how we're meant to take him. If you can get past that, however, the film is solid — and very old-fashioned — entertainment.
Genre: Drama
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano, Leslie Philips
Rated: PG



Perhaps if I’d read J.G. Ballard’s source novel, I’d be a little more in tune with Empire of the Sun, but I don’t think a movie should be reliant on the viewer’s familiarity with the book on which it’s based. The two things are very different beasts. My central problem with the film lies — as indicated earlier — with the main character, Jim (Bale). If he is supposed to be likable, then the film has failed for me. In the first stretches of the story, he strikes me as a combination of spoiled, over-privileged brat and what we used to call “backwards.” He seems completely unaware of what’s going on around him to a spectacular degree, and while I understand he’s just a kid, I think the film goes too far in his utter obliviousness. Setting aside the perspective of time — and it’s hard not to see the adult Bale in the 13-year-old version of him — it comes down to Spielberg, whose take on childhood always seems overly sentimental. Spielberg reminds me of the doting parent who comes calling and lets his child ransack your house, thinking it’s all so terribly cute. This is a stumbling block for me with the movie, especially the first half hour. I freely concede that Jim becomes less grating as the story progresses.




As a film overall, it’s hard to fault Empire of the Sun on technical grounds. It’s a masterful piece of work — so polished that you feel you could see yourself in its shiny reflection. It also feels — and this is not necessarily a downside — like a product of old Hollywood. By this I mean, it’s a film that almost might have been made by MGM under Louis B. Mayer. I actually think it might be profitable to think of Spielberg more as a producer than a director. There’s something too programmed about it all — a sense of fretting over how this will play in Dubuque — for my comfort. (Maybe 1941 cured Spielberg of risk-taking, which is not entirely a bad thing, considering 1941.) But there’s clearly a market for this approach, so it’s foolish to simply dismiss it as reactionary Hollywoodizing. It’s not like you don’t know what you’re getting into.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Empire of the Sun Sunday, June 7, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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