Classic Movie Quest: Empire of the Sun

I know this probably sounds like a broken record, but this was another film on my Must See Classic Film list. It is based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same name, by a man called J.G Ballard.

Not having read the book, I can’t compare how closely the film follows it. But to me, it would be strange to take something which is based on experiences, but dramatised to make it fiction, to be further dramatised and fictionalised for the sake of a film…

But anyway, about the film. It stars Christian Bale and John Malkovich. In fact, this was the film that apparently boosted Christian Bale’s career. From what I saw, because this was another film that didn’t make it past the 40 minute mark, it’s based in the times of the Pacific war in the 1930s, and is about a child, Jamie Graham, who becomes an orphan after being separated from his parents during a mass evacuation in Shanghai.

Here’s my first problem with… well, it’s not so much the film, it’s the character’s actions which brought about the film’s rolling plot point. I simply can’t stand a character who ignores instructions and falls victim to their own mistakes.

First he sees a boat in the harbour, opposite his bedroom window, flashing it’s light in a form of communication (light Morse code?), and flashes back with his own torch! He’s not that young of a child to not have any form of common sense. He should have known that that was not a good idea.

And then there’s an explosion. I’m not sure whether that’s coincidental or whether his light flashing back created a signal for the boat to fire at them, but either way, it was not a smart move and could have ended up with him being killed. He was lucky he moved away from the window when he did.

And then there’s the mass evacuation. There’s people everywhere, the crowd crush just by itself is dangerous, but these are desperate people just on the edge of rioting. Jamie and his parents have to leave their car and escape on foot. He’s meant to keep tight hold of his mother’s hand… but then he loses his toy aeroplane, and let’s go of his mother’s hand.

There’s a war going on, there’s mass panic, there’s a real danger they all could be killed just by being on the street, and he thinks his toy plane is important enough to risk not only his life, but the life of his mother’s as well!?

He doesn’t listen to his parents and he doesn’t do what he’s told. I know, that doesn’t mean he deserves to lose his parents or end up in a prisoner of war camp, and there was no way of knowing what exactly the outcome of his actions would be, but surely even a child of his age should have known that doing what he’s told = good and clever, and not doing what he’s told = unknown but definitely negative consequences for him and all else involved!?
Pretty much straight off the mark, I wasn’t liking this child and his precocious ways, but this plunged me even further to not like this character. And it makes it hard to concentrate on the bigger picture of the film when you have so much trouble even sympathising with the main character.

At least he had the common sense to listen to his mother when she told him to wait for her back at their house. But unfortunately all damage was done by then. The house was in disarray, especially his parent’s bedroom. All signs pointed to his mother being there but being taken, and to add to everything, the servants were looting the furniture.

He stayed in the house for some time, surviving on whatever was left to eat and drink, but eventually he ran out and had to flee onto the streets to find the Japanese had taken over.

I think his aim was to be taken prisoner by the Japanese, going by his exclamations of surrendering. But not even they wanted him.

I gave up shortly after John Malkovich’s character came into it and tried to sell off Jamie’s teeth.

I think, whilst part of my dislike of this film is obvious, I also find it very hard to sit down and enjoy films that you can’t really say you enjoy at the end of it. I know I say I can dislike a film for some reason, but appreciate how good the film is anyway, but a film like this… where I can’t appreciate how good the film is anyway, because of it’s focal point, and I dislike it for the same reason… It’s almost pointless in me trying to stick with it.

Because I’m not going to be able to get to the end of the film and say “Well, as much as such and such annoyed me, it was really enjoyable! It had a great message!”.

Because I can’t see past the barriers of this child’s lack of common sense. It would have been a very different story if he’d have acted a different way in the first place, and on the downside, that could have made for an even more sad story. But at least it might have been a story I could say “Well, I didn’t like the topic, but what a film!” about it, like I could with Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse, Now!

And it’s a shame, and I know it says more about me than it does about this film, because this was based on a novel, which was loosely based on a man’s life. And you can’t really critique a film’s depiction of actions which could have really happened. You just end up critiquing the person’s actions.

So, for that reason, I say if you’re more of a sympathetic type of person who likes to see a character grow and learn during difficult times, this film might be worth giving a go. It is, after all, considered a classic.

But for me…
I give it a 1/10. And that’s just for the acting.

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