(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriters: Menno Meyjes/Tom Stoppard/based on the autobiographical novel by J. G. Ballard; cinematographer: Allen Daviau; editor: Michael Kahn; music: John Williams; cast: Christian Bale (Jim), John Malkovich (Basie), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Victor), Joe Pantoliano (Frank), Rupert Frazer (Jim’s Father), Emily Richard (Jim’s Mother), Nigel Havers (Dr. Rawlins), Leslie Phillips (Mr. Maxton); Runtime: 145; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Steven Spielberg/Kathleen Kenned/Frank Marshall; Warner Brothers; 1987)

“Spielberg knows how to tell a story and this one is worth telling.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Steven Spielberg(“Saving Private Ryan”/”Jurassic Park”/”Schindler’s List”) takes Hollywood to Shanghai for a rare visit, as his tame yet intriguing wartime drama of an upper-class British 11-year-old boy, Jim Graham (Christian Bale, age 13), stranded in Japanese-occupied China during the evacuation of foreigners at the onset of World War II and who is assisted by a pair of street-smart American merchant seamen forced into being scavengers, Basie and Frank (John Malkovich & Joe Pantoliano), with the amoral Malkovich character later becoming both the kid’s protector and exploiter. Jim is imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp, along with the Americans. While a prisoner, the child survives by energetically doing creative projects. The kid no longer has a naive view of war, as he sees the war for the brutality it is and to escape his fate must do amoral things. The scenes in the prison are awkwardly shot and deter from the overall stunning photography by Allen Daviau, that gave it an A film look.

“Empire” isbased on J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical 1984 novel. The challenging morally charged film is adeptly written by Tom Stoppard and the uncredited Menno Meyjes, telling the story through the eyes of the frightened child, who turns from a privileged brat into an enterprising young man. The problem is that only Jim’s character is developed and the film leaves little for talented actors such as Miranda Richardson (an English friend of his parents in prison) and Nigel Havers (a doctor in prison, who befriends him) to do.

This overlooked Steven Spielberg film is ambitious, emotionally distant and glossy. It works because Spielberg knows how to tell a story and this one is worth telling.

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