Empire of the Sun

Steven Spielberg's first film following The Color Purple performs a comparably misplaced act of adapter's piety: taking a novel whose distinction largely rests on its absence of sentimentality and converting it into a three-handkerchief weepie (1987). The source of this Spielburger is J.G. Ballard's remarkable autobiographical novel about his experiences as a child in Shanghai during World War II; apart from a few sentimental “adjustments,” Spielberg and screenwriter Tom Stoppard remain surprisingly faithful to the letter of the book while almost completely betraying its spirit. Turned out with the director's characteristic craft and slickness—with able performances from Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Havers—the film also has a certain De Mille-like touch of sweeping spectacle. But the pseudomystical vagueness that seems to be Spielberg's stock-in-trade stifles most of the particularity of the source. PG, 152 min.

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