Empire of the Sun

  • Review Date: August 23, 2005
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1987
  • Running Time: 153 minutes

Common Sense Media says

Beautiful but grim WWII saga through a boy's eyes.
  • Review Date: August 23, 2005
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1987
  • Running Time: 153 minutes





What parents need to know

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

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."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

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

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.

Parents say

Kids say

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.

Families can talk 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

Theatrical release date:December 9, 1987
DVD release date:June 3, 2003
Cast:Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson
Director:Steven Spielberg
Studio:Warner Home Video
Run time:153 minutes
MPAA rating:PG
MPAA explanation:Violence, Mature themes

This review of Empire of the Sun was written by

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  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

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  • Best: Really engaging, great learning approach.
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  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Kid, 9 years old March 22, 2009

empire of the sun review by critic07

It was probaly one of the best films i have ever seen and if you like old war movies or Steven Speilberg, you will probaly love Empire Of The Sun.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Teen, 15 years old Written bywho3697cares June 3, 2009
What you basically see here is Steven Spielberg making a terrible, mushy adaptation of a great novel, the autobiography of the author's childhood in WWII East Asia. Having never suffered in his whole life to the extent of the author, Spielberg falsely identifies himself with Jim, and mushes up the whole story, and also takes out some of the most unforgettable parts of the novel. Try to avoid it.
Parent of a 14 year old Written byTsion August 12, 2009

Poignant Tale of Survival...

EMPIRE OF THE SUN gives you is a rousing premise, brilliant acting, a beautiful score, and gorgeous cinematography. It doesn't give you anything by way of blatant symbolism or explanation. Spielberg uses very little dialogue in his film. He leaves much to the music and visuals. Most of everything is left up to your interpretation. The film follows a young British boy, played by Christian Bale, through the years of WWII. He gradually loses his innocence, becoming exposed to the harsh realities of death and agony. The film is visually brilliant, with stunning cinematography. The score is John Williams's best (and that's saying a lot). And, Christian Bale gives a career-defining performance at age 13. He is the best thing about the film; his portrayal of a young victim of the pain of war gives the film a gritty feel. This film will make you think for a while afterwards. Parents: This isn't a particularly graphic film, but its harsh feel and mature themes make it unsuitable for anyone under 13 or 14. Little violence is actually shown, but the harsh realities of death in the camps are discussed and shown quite blatantly. One particularly heartwrenching scene features Bale trying to revive a young friend who has been shot, to no avail.
What other families should know
Too much violence


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