Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Empire of the Sun Film Review

empire of the sunWe’re back. The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I, post-Memorial Day, will close the month with a war film that began its life between a book cover. By chance, it’ll mark the third time for this duo post series of ours with a certain filmmaker. Not so for authors, but we’ve not repeated any other. For the month of May, we’re examining what arguably was Steven Spielberg‘s first war-story production1, based on a famed semi-autobiographical novel by an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Mostly known for his New Wave science fiction, the late-J.G. Ballard established himself by writing apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels. Who knows, perhaps his hallucinatory and highly controversial 1973 novel Crash, which was turned into a film, might make this series of ours one day. Today, we stick with his conventional war novel, Empire of the Sun. Drawn from his personal account of a young boy’s experiences in Shanghai, China during World War II.

As usual, the wordy one will examine the 1984 novel later adapted by screenwriters. I’ll examine Spielberg’s 1987 film. One that marked a turning point in his career. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

A brief synopsis of the film: Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War, by 1941, was a place of peril and the pampered. Occupied by the Japanese Army, the former for its Chinese inhabitants. The latter for the Europeans enjoying a privileged life in the Shanghai International Settlement. Especially for Jamie Graham, an upper class British schoolboy fascinated with airplanes. His cossetted family life, along with everyone else’s, coming to an abrupt halt following the attack on Pearl Harbor. When Japanese troops storm in and take control of Shanghai. Separated from his parents, young ‘Jim’ will have to find his way and somehow survive occupation and internment camp captivity, which has essentially made him an orphan.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“It’s at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it’s like a country club.”

Having seen the film first-run with my future wife, coming back to this more than a quarter of a century later was rather fascinating. Especially after reading Ballard’s source novel this time around. Re-experiencing it again on the small screen, though helped by the recent Blu-ray Disc released for its 25th anniversary, the film’s widescreen splendor was somewhat diminished. Yet, what made the feature memorable then was still in effect. The passage of time actually enriching the translated material.


Empire of Sun is most assuredly Steven Spielberg’s best of a forgotten set of film. By a number of his fans back then. Those expecting his usual adventure-slash-action-slash-thrillers. Eating-machine sea creatures, aliens, and other wondrous things. All with dazzling technology, in front of and behind the camera. Or, at least stirring, heartrending moments brought to a rich sadness on screen.

At least that last part could be used to describe what the filmmaker put forward with this effort.

This production arriving at a time when fandom expected what preceded it. Perhaps, wanting to leave behind his inceptive, serious turn with The Color Purple a couple of years earlier as something he’d get out of his system. Before returning to the fun, exciting fare Spielberg’s great at, they’d reckon. Essentially missing out on the vanguard work we’ve come to expect from this artist. At least by today’s standards.

tumblr_lxjgsqMnWX1qjonawo1_500A still young director branching out on an epic scale in the late 80s. Looking at it today, the film still engulfs its audience to a time only a dwindling number knew firsthand, and too well. The younger set not really interested. Outside of their Call to Duty controllers, that is. This film adaptation portended his later war-centered work, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and War Horse.

Showing remarkable maturity by this point in his early career — sadly enough, even Hollywood didn’t expect, or reward, it.

I’d forgotten how great the cast performances were as a whole. Naturally, Christian Bale‘s breakthrough as the young Brit coming of age during a momentous and stark period, which only war can bestow, received well-earned praise. Well before he’d put on the cowl, drastically vary his physique, or sport a Boston accent. Awing the few moviegoers who saw it firsthand.

A phenomenal channeling of the unlikely protagonist that Ballard’s novel called upon. Even his early comeuppance, by those he deemed beneath him, during the initial turmoil of occupation, a stark reminder this privileged youth knew little beyond the airplanes he aspired to fly. Beginning his new life at zero. He couldn’t even surrender himself to occupation forces without derision.


Yet, the many character renderings, by an international cast, shouldn’t have been passed over, either. Nigel HaversMiranda RichardsonLeslie PhillipsMasatô Ibu, and Takatarô Kataoka. The American director heaping face time on a young Ben StillerJoe Pantoliano, and notably John Malkovich in this. Fueling young Jim’s worship of the Japanese and Americans through his British mindset, the film’s secondary theme.

Arguably, Malkovich’s character of Basie — who’d try to sell Jim, as well use him as a decoy, valet, and future pay window during their years together — vied with the Japanese as the magnetic villain of the tale.

The best and worst of the Pacific Theatre combatants on display at Suzhou Creek internment camp and airfield.

Jim: “We’ll have to leave the camp.”

Basie: “That’s the idea, Jim. First one side feeds you and the other side tries to get you killed, then it’s turned around; it’s all timing.”

The atypical opening for Empire of the Sun, especially for Spielberg film, the prologue set the British a world apart at the onset. In the International Settlement, and later in the internment camp, creating the unique observer for telling the tale. Though typical of the director to use youthful actors, the spoilt child stripped of luxury and eventually primed for the audience’s sympathy, was out of the ordinary.

The twelve year-old’s disdain of the Chinese itself a reflection of the imperial history of pre-war Shanghai, and elsewhere. “Remember, we’re British.”, saying it all.


One of the heroic silhouettes of Empire of the Sun

Tom Stoppard, and the uncredited Menno Meyjes, got screenwriting credit for the superb distillation of Ballard’s grim fictionalization of his early life. A situation hard to contemplate, let alone describe and live through. No wonder he’d write apocalyptic stories, or have people injuriously thrown at each other, afterward. Thankfully, the film adaptation interspersed stunning images throughout to break up its distinct bleakness — viewers of King Rat and Rescue Dawn2 will recognize much.

Director of Photography Allen Daviau made excellent use of the first anamorphic lenses for widescreen cinema in the director’s grand effort, which Takuo “Tak” Miyagishi pioneered.


Spielberg filled the film with a number of his visual trademarks. The tense scene where the Jim discovers an unseen Japanese Army contingent, before the onset of outright occupation, particularly noteworthy and well staged. Bale’s character, especially through the boy’s fascination of aircraft, nearly always framed in a way to draw the audience’s eye. The spectacular P-51 attack of the airfield made more effective by this. Simply mesmerizing. Spielberg again at his eye-catching, heart-in-your-throat best…and not an extraterrestrial in sight.

“Buying and selling, Frank. Life.”

The first major American motion picture shot in China, Shanghai, specifically, Empire of the Sun maintained an authenticity not seen since the 60s epics of David Lean or Anthony Mann. The former at one time tied to this production. In Steven Spielberg’s hands, the large-scale was made personal in his unique way. The death of a child’s innocence through war and separation Spielberg’s prime impetus.

My parents got a divorce when I was 14, 15. The whole thing about separation is something that runs very deep in anyone exposed to divorce.”3, was made clear by the filmmaker. Of this, I know what he means. The surreal scene of cars, furniture, and musical instruments left from the former ruling British families, discovered by the internees in the old stadium as their one-time Japanese captors abandon their hold of China, symbolized similar.

The film remains an astonishing work by a gifted director, and unfairly overlooked. The memoirs of J.G. Ballard given a blunt but somehow beautiful treatment. One that holds up better than some of his later films, chiefly because Empire of the Sun ends at just the right moment — yeah, I’m talking about you, Lincoln. Accompanied by a more subtle John Williams’ score, this was an outstanding piece of work by Steven Spielberg. One that left childhood metaphorically floating away on the China Sea.

“Hey, kid. Want a Hershey’s bar?”

Parallel Post Series

  1. I consider his ’79 film, 1941, more comedy than one of war. 
  2. The grueling 2006 Werner Herzog POW film that also starred an adult Christian Bale. 
  3. Wikipedia, Forsberg, Myra. “Spielberg at 40: The Man and the Child.” The New York Times, October 1, 2008. Retrieved: September 17, 2008. 

27 Responses to “Empire of the Sun Film Review”

  1. ckckred

    I haven’t seen this in years but I remember really liking this. Never quite understood why so many people dismissed this, though it’s a bit too sentimental at times. Nice review.


    • le0pard13

      It is sentimental, isn’t it? Yeah, the film has been dismissed, unfortunately. Rare to see it on any list of favorites some put together. Given the grim material, I think it a great adaptation. Thank you, ckckred.


  2. Rachel

    You probably won’t be entirely surprised to hear that I decided not to watch this one due to my experience with the book. I remember when this first came out and I have several images of the movie in my head from then. I was pretty young at the time and don’t really know if the images are the iconic film shots or if I actually saw the movie. Regardless, I don’t remember it and, after reading the book, I don’t think I will be able to do the movie. As I’m sure you recall from our previous discussions I have extremely emotional responses to war material and the Ballard novel was so good that I don’t think I can watch a PG(-13? did this movie come out before PG-13 existed?) version of it. Not that I want to see it in all its horrific visuals either but, well, there is certain material that I just can’t take anyone else’s interpretation of. (For instance, you’ll never see me suggest Life of Pi for our series even though it’s my favorite book.:)

    From your review, though, it sounds like a lot of the book was captured in this film though it might be more sentimental than Ballard’s work. I’m glad to hear it got a good treatment. I seem to recall that the cast was well-received when it first came out. That’s one of my biggest memories of its release. Would you agree with that or were they dismissed along with the film?

    Crash, huh? I certainly plan to read some more Ballard now that I see what a fantastic writer he is but Crash is not a film I’d wish on anyone. I thought that one was not so great. I did see that a new film called Kill the Messenger is coming out. It’s about Gary Webb. It’s not exactly based on Dark Alliance but that might be a great one to add to the series next year. The book is certainly worth reading. Maybe the movie will be worth seeing.

    Thanks for this one! I don’t think I’d have come by this book any other way and I really loved it. Apologies that I am skipping the movie.


    • le0pard13

      I know you appreciated reading Ballard’s semi-autographical novel greatly. War novels, especially one like this with its personal stake, can be emotionally draining. Moreso when it relates, as it did here with you. Filmmakers did blunt it some, probably to make it more box office. The irony is Schlinder’s List is more horrific in its visuals and treatment, and was more critically, emotionally, and financially successful by not playing it safe. Yeah, the film is more sentimental than the book, I think.

      I didn’t know Life of Pi was your favorite book. But, I can see not wanting to a book/film you’re close into this. Certainly, Bale got a lot of attention. The rest of the cast, too, may have been well regarded for the brief period the film was in the spotlight. Seems less so in hindsight as the film doesn’t get much attention as Spielberg’s other works. I read that Ballard was happy with the translation, though.

      You’ve seen Crash? I’ve only heard about it. One of David Cronenberg’s more notorious films. It’s okay if we don’t include it in a future post. Good for Kill the Messenger as I’m curious about that. I’m glad, too, that you enjoyed the books. Quite okay about skipping the movie, Rachel. Many thanks 🙂


      • Rachel

        I have seen Crash… more’s the pity. I am quite happy to read the book to try out some more Ballard; I was more thinking of you since you’re the half that has to watch the movie. Just trying to save a couple hours of your life that you’ll never get back. 🙂 ha! Seriously, though, if it’s one you’re curious about we should throw it on there sometime. I’ll keep a lookout for Dark Alliance around these parts. I’d want to read it again if we decide to do Kill the Messenger.

        Have you read Life of Pi? Obviously, I think it’s great. 🙂

        Thanks again!


        • le0pard13

          I think I’ll put ‘Crash’ on the Netflix queue and see for myself. I’ve not read Life of Pi, though I think we have a hardcover pictorial in our library. Naturally, the whole family saw the film. That’s was great. Thanks, Rachel 🙂


  3. Novroz

    Great review Mike.
    I haven’t seen this movie again in ages. You make me want to rewatch it again


  4. ruth

    Hi Michael, I’m back late last night, still sore from all the walking but it was well worth it! Wow you saw this on theatrical first run? Awesome! I saw it a few years ago and was blown away. Young Bale was phenomenal, but I also like John Malkovich in this. Great post as always!


    • le0pard13

      Great to have you back, Ruth. I’m sure the overseas vacation was worth the soreness you now feel. I’d agree, John Malkovich in this was so great. Many thanks and welcome home! 🙂


  5. fernandorafael

    Fantastic review, Michael! I remember watching this one many years ago when I was REALLY getting into Bale’s filmography. I should check it out again.


    • le0pard13

      Yeah, this one is must-see for any Christian Bale fan. He’s phenomenal in his debut. Many thanks, Fernando 🙂


  6. storiesbywilliams

    I need to see this film! A few years ago, I was studying Japanese history and a bunch of movies were recommended. Not sure if this one came up, but I dare say it should have!


    • le0pard13

      I do recommend it, Matt. It’s an unappreciated film of Spielberg’s. Many thanks for your comment and readership. Much appreciated 🙂


      • storiesbywilliams

        No problem! Also, have you seen The Last Emperor? That was one film recommended in that class. Another was… groping for the title… Voyage of the Sand Pearl? That name ring a bell?


        • le0pard13

          Certainly, The Last Emperor is a marvelous film. A true epic. Hmm…sorry, but Voyage of the Sand Pearl doesn’t ring a bell. Could it be The Sand Pebbles? Now that’s a wonderful Robert Wise-directed Steve McQueen film. Another I’d recommend.



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