Classic Movie Review: Empire of the Sun (1987)

Posted: August 19, 2012 in Drama
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Jim Graham (Christian Bale) is one of the priveledged British families living in China in the 1940’s.  He is living the life of a lord of the manor, ordering servants around, and acting like a spoiled brat.  The life of leisure does not last very long for the 12 year old Jim.  When trying to leave China, during the Japanese occupation of China, Jim gets separated from his parents, John (Rupert Frazier) and Mary. (Emily Richard)  On the verge of starvation, Jim is picked up by two American soldiers, Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano) Basie, Frank, and Jim are subsequentlly picked up by the Japanese, and put into an internment camp.  Jim learns one lesson, survival, which basically consists of scrounging every valuable thing in the camp and giving it to Basie.  Basie is planning to break out of the internment camp, and Jim wants Basie to take him along when Basie tries to escape.  But Basie is the ultimate survivor, he will do anything to make it out of the camp alive, including doublecrossing Frank and Jim if he needs to.  Jim may be a survivor, but he also learns to care for others in the camp, including doctor Rawlins (Nigel Havers) who teaches Jim Latin, and Mrs Victor (Natasha Richardson) who has become a mother figure to him.  Does Jim escape the camp?  Does he ever see his parents again?

This is an extraordinary story of survival, and just how far people will go in order to survive in the horrific circumstances of war.  What makes this move rise above most other prison camp movies are the perfomances of a very young Christian Bale, and John Malkovich, at the heightof his acting prowess.  Bale starts the movie as a spoiled brat, a boy who gives orders, and expects them to be followed.  He ends the movie as a world weary teenager willing to do almost anything to survive, but also never forgetting to be kind to the people who are with him in the camp.  It’s an amazingly complex performance, especially given Bale’s age.  This performance gives a hint of how great of an actor Bale is, and if anything his talent has grown as he’s gotten older.  Malkovich’s character is a conniving, smooth talking con-man from the moment he is introduced in the film.  The viewer is never sure whther to trust him or not.  Joe Pantaliano is also good as Basie’s insecure right hand man, who feels he’s being replaced by the younger, smarter, Jim.  The direction by Speilberg is also worth noting. I always thought of Spielberg as a big budget, special effects director, but there are quite stunning scenes in this movie that made me sit up and take notice.

Empire of The Sun.  A shining example of superb acting and direction.

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