'Empire of the Sun': THR's 1987 Review
On Dec. 11, 1987, Warner Bros. unveiled Steven Spielberg's 152-minute World War II-era drama Empire of the Sun in theaters. The film went on to earn six nominations at the 60th Academy Awards ceremony. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
Of all the Christmas films under the tree, you don't have to look at the card to know which one is from Steven Spielberg — it's the one in the biggest box, with the bright and traditional wrapping paper, topped by the grand, glowing bow that all the kids want to grab and the dog wants to sniff.
Although die-hard Spielberg fans may expect some kind of sci-fi or adventure movie based on the word 'empire' in title, Empire of the Sun is a wonderful Christmas offering, a veritable matinee for kids of all ages. Epic-sized and gloriously old-style, Empire of the Sun should carve out bountiful box-office shares for Warner Bros.
Although Spielberg, who travels under the happy cloud of having all his films discussed in blockbuster terms, will probably not reach b.o. record-setting marks with Empire of the Sun, he has crafted a superb movie, at once colossal and radiantly personal.
An adaptation of J.G. Ballard's rich novel about a young British boy's internment in a Japanese prison camp near Shanghai during World War II, Empire of the Sun is a large and superbly orchestrated movie, visualized with the magnitude and majesty of a David Lean film.
Spielberg weaves this epic tapestry with grace and precision, threading throughout his own indelibly optimistic signature, spelled, of course, through the clear eyes of a wise and impressionable child.
Structurally, Empire of the Sun does not fit into a neat and predictable big-movie narrative curve: There is no big climax, no perceptible mission, no artificial stakes; as such, movie goers who thrive only by the stimulation of the plot may find its midsection languorous. Still, screenwriter Tom Stoppard has distilled the spirit and scope of the book, and has admirably kept the story tight and vital.
As Spielberg's mouthpiece, 13-year-old newcomer Christian Bale stars as the privileged boy, a child who has never ventured outside of his well-manicured and enriched upbringing in the exclusive British enclave in Shanghai, in the years immediately preceding World War II. Even though the Japanese occupied nearly all of China's east coast in the late '30s, the imperturbable British paid them little heed. In the wide-open Shanghai economy, the British thrive, living in cloistered splendor, condescendingly ignoring the signs of the impending war and taking heed only when the Japanese are literally at their doorsteps; Empire of the Sun is the story of the ensuing Japanese occupation, as told through the eyes of the resourceful and impressionable Bale.
Trapped amid the clamor and the carnage of the Japanese invasion, the spoiled and pampered lad proves to be wondrously agile and wily. No Dickens urchin possesses more savvy or street smarts. While Empire of the Sun is his triumphant story of growth and survival, it is, by extension, a metaphor for the world's coming of age: the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima forever precludes any group's living in isolated innocence.
As the hyperkinetic and quick-witted young boy, Bale epitomizes the qualities of Spielberg's child heroes — he's resourceful, direct, daring and reverent. A dreamer and an upstart, he admires the Japanese pilots for their bravery, forming a strong moral bond with those who live by a fearless personal code.
Bale's performance is stunning. His growth from pampered twit to perceptive young man is appropriately gradual but characteristically tempestuous.
While Bale's antics and nimble survival skills are warming and interesting, Empire fades perceptively in its realism. A cosmetic sheen pervades the internment camp scenes, rendering a sanitized glow and movie-like aura around the deathly misery.
Similarly, some ragtag supporting characters fail to jell: Although it probably looked good on paper, John Malkovich's role as a roguish "gentleman of adventure" is exasperatingly thin, popping up now and then as a sleazy cross between Radar O'Reilly and Jack Nicholson. Other supporting characters are largely unidentifiable, distinguished primarily by their nationalities.
Still, Spielberg, who clearly appreciates that the highest nobility is also scruffy, has blended a wondrous concoction of goofiness and valor. Gifting this transcendent story with his glowing visual touches, Spielberg has crafted a wellspring of golden emotional moments: Human connections and personal epiphanies abound, most strikingly when the young Bale spiritually connects with a young Japanese boy and Kamikaze pilot.
John Williams' resonant and triumphant score superbly augments this simple and complex narrative. A pristine choral arrangement, featuring soloist James Rainbird and backed by the Ambrosian Junior Choir, is a wondrous musical, as well as a thematic, leitmotif throughout the film.
Other technical credits are performed with the masterful craft of cathedral artisans: Spielberg has marshalled a massive creative force, filming in Shanghai, Spain and England; the majestic production values are impeccable. Oscar nominations, including a seeming shoe-in for Williams' magnificent orchestrations, are probably in order fro production designer Norman Reynolds, costume designer Bob Ringwood and film editor Michael Kahn. — Duane Byrge, originally published Dec. 1, 1987