- Movie Rating -

Empire of the Sun (1987)

| December 23, 1987

No one is better at allowing us to touch the heart and mind of his characters than Steven Spielberg.  He has a magic touch, a style of allowing us to stand in their shoes so that we become part of the experience rather than just a passive observer.  I’m thinking of Elliott in E.T., Roy Neary in Close Encounters, Celie in The Color Purple, the three men in Jaws all hunting the shark for different reasons.  The manner of empathy has made him one of the most special directors of his time, and is one of the key reasons why he is the most successful.

That expectation is just one of the frustrations that I had during Empire of the Sun, a beautifully-made but oddly passionless movie about the journey of a British schoolboy who lives a privileged life with his parents in the Shanghai International Settlement at the outset of World War II.  He has a distracting obsession with airplanes.  He knows the make and model of every aircraft, and as war planes make their way across the skies, it is concern for his parents but a carnival for young Jim.

Then the Japanese begin a relentless attack on China.  Soon there is rioting in the streets and panic-stricken civilians race to get out of the city.  Following close behind his parents, Jim turns around to retrieve a toy plane and finds himself separated amid the chaos and will not see them for many years.  Lost and alone in occupied China, Jim is eventually placed in a prisoner of war camp.

Thrust, for the first time, into an environment that forces him to have to forge for himself, he makes a friend of sorts in an American merchant seaman name Basie (John Malkovich) who knows how to hustle and dodge in order to get basic necessities.  Their union is not exactly father and son, it’s more of a very permissive older brother who allows little brother to play in his circle, only in this case it is for basic survival.  Much of the movie takes place inside that internment camp where Jim is allowed to come and go more or less as he pleases.  He learns very astute lessons from Basie about how to wheel and deal.  As time goes on, and he grows, he begins to lose the memory of his mother and father.

The movie was based on the true adventures of J.G. Ballard who wrote a book about his experiences, but I couldn’t help thinking that the story of a kid living through the day-to-day devastation of this war was told much better in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory.  Both films offer the juxtaposition of the grim reality of the war matched against the point of view of a child which, of course, is the loaded with fantasies.

Boorman’s film does a much better job of dealing with the war as a daily occurrence.  He’s surer of his material.  I was never sure what Spielberg’s film was really trying to be about.  Yes, there’s a kid growing up amid the horrors of war, but we are so distant from him and his experience that we are never quite sure what we are supposed to think about them.  We sense a kid who is over-privileged and spoiled and then, once separated from his mother, is forced to grow up amid impossible circumstances, while still holding on to his childhood innocence.

The performances are just fine, especially young Christian Bale, whose face yields a solemnity and intelligence that is rare among actors his age.  But, again, I was never sure what I was suppose to feel for him.  He has moments that rise to great emotional heights but they’re so vague that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was suppose to feel for them.  This is a movie that asks for your heart, but can’t really ever tell you why.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Drama