1987 Movie Review: EMPIRE OF THE SUN, 1987

Movie Reviews

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano
Review by Matthew Lohr


A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation during World War II.

Nominated for 6 OSCARS – Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Music, Best Costume Design


After years of being pigeonholed as simply an entertainer, a populist producer of popcorn frivolity, Steven Spielberg has finally won acceptance as a serious filmmaker. His “Schindler’s List” won awards and acclaim and was cited as a milestone in historical cinema, while “Saving Private Ryan” has grown in the public mind into much more than a mere film; indeed, it more or less served the role of a de facto World War II veterans’ monument until the federal government actually got around to building a real one. Even when the public does not embrace his forays into serious cinema quite so fervently, as with the acclaimed but financially underperforming “Amistad” and “Munich”, Spielberg no longer has to fight for respect and the right to be regarded as a cinematic “artiste”.

Such was not the case when “Empire of the Sun” was first released in 1987. Though Spielberg’s previous film, 1985’s deep-Southern drama “The Color Purple”, had won him some acclaim and a Director’s Guild award, many critics charged that the picture prettified human suffering, turning true experience into mere pageantry. It was still hard for audiences to find the artist inside the entertainer, and they responded to “Empire of the Sun” in kind, greeting it with both mixed reviews and lukewarm box office. It would take a few more crowd-pleasers (another Indiana Jones picture, “Jurassic Park”) before Spielberg finally got his due with “Schindler’s List”. “Empire of the Sun” provides an interesting contrast to that film, presenting a vaguely similar subject with all of the Hollywood gloss and glamour that the later film eschews…and ultimately suffering for it.

Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical best-seller, “Empire” tells the story of young Jim Graham (a pre-teen Christian Bale), a pampered son of wealthy English parents living in 1940s Shanghai. Jim is obsessed with planes, and dreams of someday joining the mighty Japanese air force. One day, however, the dreams stop when the Japanese take the city and Jim is separated from his parents. Drifting through a series of increasingly harrowing adventures, he eventually finds himself in a Japanese internment camp, where the once-arrogant son of privilege is forced to get down in the muck and learn how to survive.

It’s grand material for a cinematic treatment, but Tom Stoppard’s screenplay does not take it far enough. We never really get a clear sense of exactly what Jim learns from his experiences. Sure, he finds out that life’s not as easy as he thought it was, and that the Japanese army he so idolized is indeed vulnerable, but these lessons are never clearly articulated by the script’s events, and we’re left to piece it together later in our heads (I think this is where the playwright in Stoppard comes through; film scripts often don’t bear up to such abstraction). Jim’s plane fixation likewise seems meant to hold a metaphorical weight that it never truly assumes. What’s more, when Jim is finally delivered from his predicament, we get no scenes showing us his life after his ordeal. How can we really know how he’s changed, what he’s learned, if we don’t get to see the new Jim in action? Spielberg and Stoppard don’t bother to provide any answers, and the film becomes too remote as a result.

Bale, admittedly, makes even this truncated Jim a compelling and fascinating character. The actor holds the screen with utter command; it’s not a stretch for us to follow him anywhere. He’s equally convincing as the snobby, snide boy of early scenes and as the haggard, battle-hardened survivor of the later camp sequences. Spielberg has always been one of our best directors of children, and Bale’s performance here is some of the best work he’s ever solicited from a young actor.

The supporting cast, while impressive, is unfortunately hamstrung by insufficiently defined roles. Miranda Richardson and Peter Gale have some nice moments as Jim’s surrogate prison-camp parents, and Nigel Havers makes us wish we saw more of his dedicated camp doctor. Masato Ibu is also commanding as the cold-eyed Japanese commandant, and Emily Richard has a few moments of chilling power as Jim’s mom. Still, these characters are never given much to do by the story, and merely seem to be around to react to Jim’s actions. The only truly vividly drawn supporting player is Basie (John Malkovich), a former merchant sailor and full-time survivor who teaches Jim the hard facts of camp living while plotting an escape and a new life as a river pirate. He’s a complex and interesting character, both a pragmatist and a dreamer, and Malkovich invests him with hard-bitten smarts and a surprising soulfulness that makes his every scene compelling.

This being a Steven Spielberg picture, naturally, everything looks just great. The cinematography by Allen Daviau is gorgeous, and the production designers craft an always-convincing facsimile of World War II China. John Williams’ score is undistinguished, but the soundtrack makes use of a haunting Welsh lullaby that stayed in my head for days. And, of course, there’s plenty of Spielbergian set pieces: the harrowing moment where Jim loses his mother, a tense sequence where a Japanese gunman stalks the boy through a field of weeds, Jim saluting a band of Japanese kamikaze pilots, and a well-staged air attack on the camp, with Jim cheering wildly for the planes about to destroy him.

Still, should a film like this even HAVE set pieces? “Schindler’s List” had memorable moments, to be sure, but none of them seemed to be there just so the director could show off; everything emerged naturally from the events of the story, and thus became organic parts of a whole, not “big scenes”. “Empire of the Sun” gave Spielberg a serious subject matter and a broad canvas to explore, but the populist was still too much at play. It would take a few years and a few more films, but Spielberg finally got it right, proving that even the most financially successful director of all time can learn a few new tricks every now and again.This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.

The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.

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Movie Reviews

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen
Review by Steven Loeb


Cableman Roy Neary is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountainlike image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy and the agents both follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.


In the early days of science fiction movies, beings from other planets were often used as a symbol of fear and destruction. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, aliens were often used as a representation for the invasion of Communism. They came, they saw and they destroyed everything in their path. By the late 1970s, though the Cold War was still going strong, the Red Scare was long over, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) had improved relations between the United States and Russia, leading to a reduction in the number of missiles that each country would be allowed to keep in their arsenals. It seemed that the two super-powers might be coming toward some kind of resolution to their decades-long war; of course this would not actually happen until more than ten years later. Nevertheless, if there is one film that shows a prevailing optimism in the direction that the Cold War, and the world in general, was taking at the time, it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the third film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the story of a small town electrician named Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who experiences a seemingly random encounter with a UFO. After the experience, Roy becomes obsessed with aliens and UFOs. His behavior becomes extremely strange and erratic, including drawing the same mountain over and over. When he is unable to explain his behavior to his wife, she leaves him, and only then does he realize that he is drawing Devils Tower in Wyoming, the site where the UFOs are about to make contact with humans. As he races to get there, the government, having made a list of people who will be allowed to visit the aliens, apprehends him. After being questioned, Roy is added to the list, the aliens return the numerous people who had been abducted over the years, Roy and the others on the list enter the spaceship and are taken away to make contact with the friendly aliens.

Close Encounters was a film that Steven Spielberg had been working on for almost a decade by the time it was finally released. After shopping the film around, Spielberg was finally able to sell the script, and get creative control of the project, following the massive success of Jaws (1975). Based on a story he had written as a teenager, it is one of the few scripts for which Spielberg gets full writing credit, even though the script went through numerous changes and numerous other writers worked on different drafts of the story. Despite the contributions of other writers, in many ways, this is the first real Spielberg film, as this is where he began to incorporate themes that he would use in many of his later films, some of which reflect his own life and would come to define him as a director. This is the first of Spielberg’s films to depict an unhappy marriage; Spielberg’s own parents had divorced when he was a child and he often incorporates broken families, or single parent homes, in his films. Roy and his wife have a tempestuous relationship to begin with, and they see their marriage become even more strained as a result of Roy’s obsessions, ultimately leading to the collapse of their relationship. Spielberg would use this theme most famously in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), a film about a lonely boy who finds friendship with a lost alien. Spielberg’s films also often incorporate the themes of wonder and child-like innocence, seen here as Roy enters the spaceship at the end of the film. Though he is unsure of what is going to happen, he is excited and awed instead of afraid. This motif was used again in the Indiana Jones movies and, perhaps most successfully, in Jurassic Park (1993).

Close Encounters was the second collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss, the first being Jaws two years earlier. Dreyfuss, who had first gained fame for his role in American Graffiti (1973), became a major movie star after Jaws. In 1978, he became the youngest actor ever to win the Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Goodbye Girl (1977), though this honor has since been surpassed by Adrian Brody.

Unfortunately for Dreyfuss, at the peak of his success, he developed a serious drug habit and, after crashing his car and being arrested for cocaine possession in 1982, he was forced to enter rehab. He was eventually able to resuscitate his career, going on to receive a nomination for Best Actor for Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). After Close Encounters, Dreyfuss and Spielberg would work together one more time in Always (1989), a film that is widely considered to be one of Spielberg’s worst movies.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a huge success, both critically and at the box office. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including a Supporting Actress nomination for Melina Dillion, playing the mother of an abducted child, and Spielberg’s first for Best Director; the film would walk away with two Oscars, for cinematography and sound editing.

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THE BFG (USA 2016). Directed by Steven Spielberg

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the_bfg.jpgTHE BFG (USA 2016) **
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader

Review by Gilbert Seah

THE BFG (big friendly giant) premiered at Cannes this year in the out-of-competition category to rave reviews. So expecting a lot from Spielberg, the director who is reputed to be a creator of dreams, I went into the BFG film (a film with a story of a giant collecting dreams in a bottle) expecting a lot but was duly disappointed.

The film based on the Roald Dahl children’s novel, deals with an orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who lost her parents when she was a baby. Sophie is kidnapped from the orphanage one night by the BFG (Oscar Winner Mark Rylance from Spielberg’s NEST OF SPIES) and brought to Giant Land. There, Sophie befriends the BFG. The book and film fail to give a satisfactory reason of Sophie being kidnapped. The BFG turns out to be one who captures dreams and delivers them to children in the human world. In Giant Land, Sophie meets the other nasty evil human-eating giants. Going back to London, she convinces the Queen (Penelope Wilton) to capture the evil giants. That is the story, a simpler one compared to other Dahl’s stories.

Spielberg opts to leave out Sophie’s orphanage life. Nothing is shown about her life there, except of a mention by her to the BFG that the matron Mrs. Conkers is nasty and gives out lots of punishments such as locking children in the cellar which is rat infested. Not one other child is shown in the film leaving out a key element in the film – the human element. Other characters like the Queen’s Head of Army and Air Force, the King of Sweden and Sultan of Bagdad are largely left out. There are no ‘real’ human beings in the film except for Sophie. Everyone else like the queen and her men are shown as clowns and just pawns for the story’s movement.

At least the special effects animation and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography are nothing short of stunning. The look of Mark Rylance as the BFG looks very close to Quentin Blake’s illustration in the Dahl book. From the very first frame to the last, there is always the feeling of awe. But the basic human story is lost. Special effects have undermined the simple pleasure of a Roald Dahl book. There can always be too much of a good thing. After being in Giant Land for an hour, the special effects animation begin to look normal.

Spielberg keeps his film in family mode. There is not gore or any scene in which a giant gobbles a human being. When Sophie is eaten by a giant in her dream, she is seen thrown into a dark black hole. Spielberg also resorts to cheap laughs like fart jokes The BFG offers Sophie a fizzy drink called frobscottle that causes noisy green-coloured flatulence. The flatulent humour is revisited when the Queen herself drinks the frobscottle.

The film is dedicated to Melissa Mathison, the scriptwriter (she also wrote E.T.) who passed away during the film’s production.

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