Monday, November 4, 2013

Movie Review: Ender's Game

Ender’s Game
Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Written by: Gavin Hood based on the book by Orson Scott Card.
Starring: Asa Butterfield (Ender Wiggin), Harrison Ford (Colonel Graff), Hailee Steinfeld (Petra Arkanian), Abigail Breslin (Valentine Wiggin), Ben Kingsley (Mazer Rackham), Viola Davis (Major Gwen Anderson), Aramis Knight (Bean), Suraj Partha (Alai), Moises Arias (Bonzo Madrid), Khylin Rhambo (Dink Meeker), Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak (Peter Wiggin), Nonso Anozie (Sergeant Dap), Conor Carroll (Bernard ).
For the most part, I believe that you have to except the basic principle of a movie. Some like to dig in and map out all the logic flaws in a time travel movie for instance – showing how what happens in the movie will make the universe implode – but to me I try to just except the basic premise of any movie and go with it. You can make a good movie – or at least an entertaining one – out of the most ridiculous premise imaginable – if you at least stick to your own rules. In relation to Ender’s Game however, I never could quite believe the founding premise of the film – that children and not adults are best suited for war, because they are more empathetic, so they can better intuit the moves of the enemy. I don’t think this is entirely my fault – the movie does a very poor job of establishing the why and how this premise was established in this world, and the movie, which seems to be about the main character trying to find balance between two extremes – empathy and violence – is also poorly handled. The movie, which has a lot of weighty ideas in it, especially for a Young Adult one, is more interested in special effects than anything else – and that ends up hurting the film immeasurably.

We first meet Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) while he’s at school, training to see if he has what it takes to be a soldier in the fight against the Formics – an alien race who tried to invade Earth 50 years before, but were eventually defeated – but only after millions of people lost their lives. Humans were unprepared last time, but won’t be next time. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) is convinced Ender is “the one” – but needs to put him through one final test before he can go off to Battle School – which Ender passes by putting a much larger child in the hospital. He didn’t pass because he was quick to violence – he passed because of the reason he put the kid in the hospital – he kicked him when he was down to prevent future fights.

In voiceover, Ender tells us that he must balance out the traits of his two older siblings – Peter, who is sadistic and quick to violence, and Valentine (Abigail Breslin) who is too empathetic. He has to strike the middle ground – being willing to dole out violence when need be, but still empathetic enough to understand his enemy. Graff immediately singles Ender out in Battle school – which, of course, makes all the other kids hate him, which is precisely what Graff wants. Graff wants Ender to become hard, and believe that no one will ever be there to help him. He is, in theory, balanced out by Anderson (Viola Davis), who takes Ender’s mental well-being seriously, but since Graff outranks her, he just steamrolls over all of her concerns. Graff’s plan doesn’t work too well anyway – as Ender still does manage to make friends – in particular Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), who helps him train in the Zero-G room for battle simulations.

Ender’s Game didn’t really work for me. From the beginning, we know Ender is the “chosen one” – the Luke Skywalker of the movie – and the film treats that as pretty much a given. As Ender gets promoted – time and again – through the ranks rather quickly, I was always left wondering why. What did he do that was so much greater than everyone else? Why is Graff so convinced of his abilities? Why does Sergeant Dap (Nonso Alonzie), who in one scene says he’ll never salute Ender, end up changing his mind just a few scenes later? I never quite understood why they thought Ender struck the balance between empathy and violence they want so bad so perfectly – when he does react violently, it’s always in self-defense – which is not what they want him to do to the Formics. They want a pre-emptive strike, which is the exact opposite of self-defense. The film also foreshadows it’s ending way too heavily (I won’t say how, because if I did, the ending would become immediately apparent to anyone who may see the film). And I do not think the end of the movie really works. The film wants to have a moral complexity in its final moments that the rest of the film pretty much refuses to have.

All this probably makes it sound like I hated Ender’s Game. I didn’t – although I find the movie ultimately unsatisfying, there are still some good things in the movie. Asa Butterfield confirms the talent he showed as the title character in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo – and, to a lesser extent, Hailee Steinfeld confirms the talent she showed in the Coen’s True Grit. Harrison Ford is not just sleepwalking through his role as Graff, as he has done far too often lately. Viola Davis is a much needed sympathetic presence, and Ben Kingsley is in fine form as another mentor. In short – the acting is almost universally very good – although the actors are undercut by a screenplay too full of exposition – and not the kind of exposition I would have found fascinating (about the morality of what they are doing), but the kind where characters spend entire scenes explaining the rules of everything to each other for no reason other than without it, the audience would be lost. The special effects are generally quite good as well.

I have not read the novel by Orson Scott Card, so I cannot say how the movie stacks up against it (I wanted to read it, but my pretty pathetic public library has had the book “on order” for six months now, and I’m too cheap to buy many books). I am willing to bet however that book is more complex than the movie – and spends more time on the morality of what is going on. There is a reason this movie has languished in one sort of development hell or another for over 20 years now, and why there were dozens of drafts of the screenplay at various points. In the end though, it’s what is on screen that counts – and what’s there is a promising idea, that is never fully executed.

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