Empire of the sun isn’t the first drama Steven Spielberg made. That honor goes to the Whoopi Goldberg–Danny Glover movie The Color Purple.
But unlike the 1985 melodrama about a young black girl suffering abuse, even rape, from her father as well as many others throughout her life, Empire of the sun isn’t a straight-up drama. It’s a war movie, and a big one at that. And back in 1987, Steven Spielberg wasn’t the director we’ve come to love today. Back in 1987, he wasn’t ready to tell such a complex story …
It’s hard to tell if Spielberg was still too much of a child – having made mostly fantasy films in the ’80s such as E.T. and Indiana Jones – or that he engulfed more on his plate than he could stomach. After all, he had never done a big war movie before. Especially a war movie about the true history of things near the end of World War II in Shanghai.
This movie isn’t your regular war movie, like Platoon, where we stay close to the action and follow the American troops through the thick bushes of some Asian country.
No, Empire of the sun tells the story through the eyes of a child. And there’s where things get really boring really fast. It’s not that this particular formula doesn’t work – just watch The boy in the striped pyjamas which was a throat-gripping blast from beginning to end – but the young boy in this movie isn’t half as interesting as the ones from the 2008-masterpiece.
This boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation during World War II, meaning he’s running from A to B to C … and none of the letters provide any interesting moments in the movie. There’s the earliest scene where he’s dressed up as Sinbad facing some hidden squad of Japanese soldiers – an interesting scene, yes! – but there’s no follow-up to that scene, so basically the movie is better off without it altogether.
Then he gets separated from his parents and returns to the mansion, hoping they’ll be there. Granted, this scene IS an important one as it sets up the entire premise of the movie … but once again it fails miserably. Watching a boy running around in an empty house, eating alone at the table (where does the warm food come from? Did he cook it? With what? Broken pots and pans?) and riding his bike from the kitchen to the living room is as boring to write about as it is to watch it.
And don’t get me started on what comes next …
Finally, the boy connects with a couple of losers whose only interest is robbing houses for money and food, but end up getting their asses kicked by Stanley Kubrick-creepy Japanese guys all dressed in white.
From there the odd trio find themselves locked away in a prison camp. It’s here that we get a few decent scenes – like the one where Jim (the young boy) sets up a successful trading system of goodies or how he manages to stay hidden when crawling under the barbed wire into a forbidden part of the camp – but by that time you’re already overcome with so much indifference that you simply might not care if the boy lives or dies.
At the end, we once again witness Jim’s fascination with war planes – especially the P-51 – and the search for his parents continue.
So what makes this movie the single most boring war movie made in the history of American moviemaking? It’s quite self-explanatory.
Because we don’t get to see any action. You only get to see the ugly side of the war. The pain of innocent people, the disgust of losing your home and parents, the tragedy of never being able to call a certain place home, the constant sickness that leans on your shoulder, etc …
Plus, there’s also the boy.
Agreed, the acting performance of a young Christian Bale who’s so young it’s almost impossible to recognize him, is easily the best thing of the movie. It’s not quite a Leonardo DiCaprio tour-de-force as in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – but then again: Christian was never as good as Leonardo to begin with! – but it’s definitely a stellar performance that’s Oscar-worthy. It gives you a glimpse of the wonderful career this Welsh actor would pursue.
No, what makes his character unbearably annoying is how this young boy seems to suffer from a severe case of ADHD (that’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for you laymen out there!)
He’s constantly – and I do mean: constantly! – running around. Like one of those rabbits charged up by Energizer-batteries, he never stops running. He’s always looking for food, shelter or other stuff that he can exchange. He talks fast when it’s about planes, but he whines like a little b**** when faced against the horrors of the war.
Mind you, this is understandable and very realistically portrayed. Any boy his age would be scared. But in making this realistic war movie, Steven Spielberg forgot to add one little piece of the puzzle: entertainment!
Where is the entertainment in this movie?
Empire of the sun is thusly often called: the dry run for Schindler’s list – the greatest of all Spielberg-dramas!
Why? Because Empire of the sun lacks the ability to show realism and still firmly hold the audience’s attention. This movie has neither fight nor fright. This movie isn’t spectacular. It isn’t filled with great explosions, with true Silver Star-heroism acts of regular people.
No, Empire of the sun is a long, stretched-out fatality of a young boy complaining his way through an ordeal of miserable mishaps. It’s the kind of money that takes a lot of energy to sit through until the very end, most notably because – in spite of Christian Bale‘s great acting – the rest of the cast is just as empty and ponderous.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were forced into signing up for this movie. It’s like they never liked their characters, and their unpleasantly dreary acting and serious lack of energy pulls the movie deeper into its own abyss of misfortunate drama storytelling.
Luckily, a young Ben Stiller pops up and provides what might easily be the only time you’ll smile when watching this movie …
I guess the only real positive thing is how Steven Spielberg managed to give his movie an authentic Asian look. Not just by selecting a greater bunch of Asian people, but also by choosing to show the beautiful background of Shanghai, ripped apart by the devastation of Japanese soldiers. Of course, it doesn’t do the movie much justice. It’ still one big bore.
And if you know that masterclass-director David Lean wanted to make this movie – and yes, when it comes to drama he’s the better one! – it’s a pity the studio went with the one who hadn’t done quite so many dramas back in the late ’80s.
Empire of the sun may come forward as one of the most realistic movies about World War II … but just like the war itself … you’re gonna be glad this shit is over!
Did you know?
Eric Flynn, who plays a British POW, was actually a POW as a child in a Japanese camp.
Give it to me short:
Empire of the sun may be successful in translating the real horror of World War II to the silver screen, but it lacks the sense of entertainment so much that a happy clown may consider suicide before the movie runs out.
It’s long, awkward and completely miserable from minute 1 to minute (checking how long the movie runs) 153. There are no classic characters that you can love. There are no mega-wow, awesome fighting scenes of which the second world war had plenty. And there’s no silver lining until the very end, but by that time you’ve already sunken so deep in your chair that your chin actually touches your knees.
It’s one of the hardest movies – ever! – to finish, because every single scene drips with overly uninteresting-stereotyped characters in the midst of a haunting realism! You might be better off watching a documentary on World War II. At least with that, you’ll get something real.
This movie tries to delve you deep into a fictitious story, but it feels just as boring as real life back when war ripped many countries and people’s lives apart.
The biggest problem of Empire of the sun is: there is NO slightest slice of entertainment. No heroes. No victory. No bad guy who shifts character when he realizes he’s causing death and despair.
Empire of the sun may only benefit from a realistic portrayal of what Shanghai might’ve looked like back in the 1940’s. The busy streets with people running away from the impending war, the broken houses and dying beggars sitting on the curb, the beautiful natural backgrounds wasted away by crashed airplanes and bloodied bodies – in terms of realism, this movie scores high!
But what’s the point of watching a movie when all it does to you is make you sad and miserable? Where is the entertainment value? Where is the ‘WOW!’ in the movie? Where is the energy that sizzles through the script?
Why so serious? Why so boring? Why so ordinary? We already have our own reality for that … don’t we?