Empire of the Sun

Movie review by
Scott G. Mignola, Common Sense Media
Empire of the Sun Movie Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Beautiful but grim WWII saga through a boy's eyes.
  • PG
  • 1987
  • 153 minutes

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 5 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 14 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie attempts to convey the idea that humanity can rise above desperate conditions, that selflessness is its own reward, and that wealth and privilege can blind people to others' suffering.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Born into wealth, Jim is a spoiled and ungrateful young boy. But, once the catastrophe of war rids him of all luxuries, he evolves into an independent young man. He exudes compassion and generosity, placing others' needs before his own (unlike the majority of the other POWs who portray "every man for himself" attitudes). Although he is starving and abused, he shares his food rations with women and the elderly and keeps an open mind that all Japanese are not enemies. 


Lots of war violence: bombing, shooting, and clubbing. People killing people. Civilians flee tanks and bombs, and starving survivors fight for food. 


A married couple passionately kiss each other in bed while adolescent Jim curiously watches.


Dated derogatory names are used such as "jap," "chink" and "ol' boy."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many characters smoke tobacco in an accurate reflection of the era. Some adults drink casually. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this war movie is grim, emotional, and violent. Expect scenes of bombing, shooting, clubbing, looting, stealing, dead bodies, and starving prisoners of war reduced to eating insects. But the film also contains some uplifting messages about helping others and the triumph of humanity over suffering. Some WWII-era racial insults.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byLordSam April 14, 2021

Once a time

what i think? you should watch it i just can't believe that there are some people who have never seen it. the story, the music, the charachters...etc. it m... Continue reading
Adult Written byWar Movie Lover August 2, 2020

Very amazing

PG: some war images and violence
Kid, 12 years old March 14, 2017

Amazing movie that will break your heart

This beautifully shot movie is a great experience. Empire of the Sun is a classic true story that is great for families.
Teen, 16 years old Written bydehfrjg May 16, 2021

A little bit of violence, but it is compatible with the young audience

I didn't like the movie very much, not too heavy, very light violence, very light drug use, and a quick kiss scenne.

What's the story?

Sheltered by a life of privilege, young Jim (Christian Bale) is more fascinated than threatened by the planes that drift high above his family's Shanghai manor. That life falls to pieces, however, at the outbreak of World War II when, fleeing tanks and gunfire, he becomes separated from his parents and has to fend for himself. A Japanese POW camp teaches him the meaning of want. In this new world framed by barbed wire, Jim -- who has a better view of fighter planes now than he ever dreamed possible -- finds a father figure of sorts in Basie (John Malkovich), an American prisoner who turns him into a contraband runner, giving the boy a purpose that both threatens his survival and gives him a reason to go on living.

Is it any good?

EMPIRE OF THE SUN is a war story that wants desperately to have a heart. Unfortunately, the humanity is lost among too-slick Hollywood theatrics, melodrama, and an overblown score that implores us to feel what the movie ultimately fails to deliver. About a quarter of the way through watching Steven Spielberg's first serious war drama, one starts to feel that something's missing. It's like trying to make sense of a four-hour movie that's been randomly edited down to two-and-a-half. The cinematography is beautiful, the storytelling is compelling, but nothing really clicks.

Like the young hero in John Boorman's much better Hope and Glory, Jim finds a certain exhilaration in war, and even has moments of fun with it. These moments far outweigh the gravity of his situation, though, and rob the movie of vitality. Spielberg hit the bull's-eye a few years later with the horrifyingly realistic Schindler's List, and again with Saving Private Ryan. But in 1987 he either wasn't a mature enough director to unveil the true horrors of war, or he was simply too protective of his feel-good audience.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the young protagonist's perception of war before and after it touches him directly. What are your perceptions of current war and political strife?

  • What messages does the movie express about materialism?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love historical events

Themes & Topics

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