Picks and Pans Review: Empire of the Sun

updated 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

There are heart-stopping scenes of childhood exhilaration and terror in Steven Spielberg's film about an English boy's internment in a WW II Japanese prison camp in China. But these scenes, photographed with a poet's eye by Allen (ET.) Daviau, surround a vacuum. Spielberg and playwright-screenwriter Tom (The Real Thing) Stoppard have taken the chill—and most of the meaning—out of J.G. Ballard's 1984 novel, an apocalyptic vision of war. Spielberg, try as he mightily does, cannot do bleakness. Two years ago he removed the grit from The Color Purple by giving black poverty the rainbow-hued simplicity of a fable. There's no mistaking what Spielberg, the Peter Pan of American moviemakers, connects to in Ballard's story: It's a boy's survival manual. But Ballard (who based the boy, Jim, on his own childhood experiences) rubbed his young survivor's face in the decay of body and spirit in the camps. Spielberg instinctively turns away from the indecorous. Though he has drawn a remarkable, unsentimental performance from Christian Bale, 13, Spielberg compromises the character. Ballard saw the futility in Jim's admiration for the kamikaze pilots' courage. Spielberg sees only a chance for great shots of preparing for battle; he romanticizes suicide. The cartoonish rah-rah stuff is hyped to an irritating fare-thee-well by John Williams' earache of a score. The film is most moving at the start as coddled British and American dependents in Shanghai flee their enclave after Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. After Jim is separated from his parents and imprisoned, the picture runs aground. When he is befriended by John Malkovich, as a conniving American seaman, and Niger Havers, as a British doctor in the camp, Empire starts resembling TV's Hogan's Heroes. The ending, shattering in the book, loses its resonance since Spielberg hasn't connected his spectacle to a larger moral theme. The sun sets on this Empire without convincing us that either Jim or Spielberg has come any closer to growing up. (PG)

From Our Partners