A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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 ...
Themes & Topics
Browse titles with similar subject matter.
For kids who love historical events
Our editors recommend
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.