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January 28, 2014

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Movie Review – Ender’s Game (2013)

by Master Pillow

Fans of the book will probably come away feeling satisfied at this big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s landmark science fiction novel but there is also no doubting that the final product feels inherently cramped, truncated and altogether missing a large dose of heart.  Editing the dense source material into a two hour feature film was always going to be a Herculean task and though director/writer Gavin Hood does an admirable job of hitting all the major plot points the fact remains that it might have served the source material better if this project were instead a 10 episode HBO show where the complex nuances, allegories and character development would surely have added to the rich tapestry that Card had crafted.

Set approximately fifty years after a devastating alien attack on Earth which humanity won by the skin of its teeth, Ender’s Game revolves around a young 16 year old teenager named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) who, along with his classmates, represents a new wave of cadets meant to become the next generation of hardened military leaders.  Apparently, the military brass have concluded that young teens are best suited for this modern style of combat since they can process information much faster than older candidates.  At the same time there is an underlying moral subtext at work since the military also understands that it is much easier to mold young psyches rather than someone that is older and holds a much better sense of self-awareness.

Once accepted into the prestigious Battle School Program, Ender quickly finds himself as the virtual underdog in every situation he faces but much of this is due to the fact that his commanding officer, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) purposely is manipulating the rules to test him, as he sees that the boy has infinite potential to be the “saviour” that everyone is looking for.  In that sense, Graff keeps throwing various obstacles in Ender’s path in an attempt to not only ascertain Ender’s strategic prowess but also to see how he reacts psychologically to situations of escalating stress.

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As a movie, Ender’s Game, really feels like a more dark and somber take on Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers featuring a narrative that focuses on a group of green recruits who have to quickly learn to work together if they have any chance of rising up to the challenge presented by an alien threat of immense power.  Indeed, both films feature an alien antagonist species of sentient bug-like creatures even going so far as to have them led by a super-intelligent insect that basically commands the hive-like troops.

However, what sets Ender’s Game apart from Verhoeven’s adaptation is that it focuses entirely on even younger teenagers as the bulk of the film revolves solely around their trials and tribulations in what is essentially a futuristic version of WestPoint Military Academy.  Therefore, instead of watching ground troops mow down a horde of bugs armed only with machine guns, Ender’s Game feels very much more in the vein of a film like Taps, Full Metal Jacket or even G.I. Jane where character development and interaction within the confines of a military school take precedence over all-out action sequences.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that for this to work, audiences will need to be convinced of each cadet’s individual worth and to empathize/sympathize with the various characters.  Failing to craft convincing characters will obviously result in much dead-weight as viewers will just not buy into the narrative that these youngsters are attempting to not only learn advanced military strategy but also grow as human beings.

In this sense, the movie is truly a mixed bag as the only character that successfully comes to life is the lead protagonist, Ender Wiggin and much of this comes from actor Asa Butterfield who completely nails the role with ease.  Butterfield makes Ender a truly compelling character with a persona that is crafted from a myriad contradictions.  At one moment he can be compassionate and caring and in another revert to almost animalistic brutality as he unrepentantly stomps a fellow recruit with powerful blows to the gut in order to ensure he never poses a threat to him ever again.

This dichotomy of character makes Ender a joy to watch as he clearly sports a keen intellect and sense of self beyond his lean years.  His strong strategic mind allows him to think two steps ahead of all his foes and the film flies whenever the focus is on how he manages to outflank, outthink and in the end completely destroy his opposition.

Nevertheless, the movie does miss the opportunity to truly flesh out Ender in terms of his family backstory.  The third child in a future where only two are desired, Ender represents the “middle-ground” as his personality is made up of equal parts from his too-sympathetic sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and his older brother Petyr who flunked out of Battle School precisely because he was borderline psychotic.  The book does a great job of showing how Ender’s siblings influence his character and overall morality but unfortunately, this family dynamic is all but erased from the film which decides to condense hundreds of pages devoted to this subject to a mere few minutes.

This makes the movie version of Ender just feel more schizophrenic than he should considering this entire family subplot is basically omitted.  At the same time it also short-circuits every single scene featuring Abigale Breslin as Ender’s sister as her overbearing propensity to give him motherly advice comes off as overly saccharine.  It also doesn’t help that a large chunk of Valentine’s screentime comes in a kind of virtual reality game where her character is seen in digitized form.  This virtual reality mind game also plays a huge part in the book and though it is present, the way in which director Gavin Hood decides to portray it is wholly literal and it will make anyone who plays video games cringe.

However, the same cannot be said for every other teen actor here as the supporting cast is truly straitjacketed in subservient roles that never allow them to craft three dimensional characters.  Instead, the film flounders and falls back on that hoary old cliché of only painting each one in huge broad strokes defining them with basically only one trait from start to finish.  It soon becomes clear that each of Ender’s classmates falls into one of two categories: loyal to him or not and it is truly a shame since it makes the film feel as if Ender has no intellectual or physical peer.  Asa Butterfield can hardly be described as being muscular and with his also toothpick physique it speaks volumes of the wonky script that he still comes across as physically imposing just because his grasp of strategy automatically gives him the edge in every situation that places him in peril or duress.

With no teen actor that can stand toe-to-toe with Butterfield it falls upon Harrison Ford to provide the needed sparks and thankfully he really seems up to the task as he appears engaged with the role and the material given, more so than other recent roles where he appeared completely disinterested.  Ford has seen a minor career resurgence garnering some acclaim in supporting roles in films like the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, and now with Ender’s Game it seems as if he is coming out of his acting hibernation.

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On the other hand, the role of the gruff Colonel Graff is firmly in his acting wheelhouse as he once again plays an authoritative curmudgeon with hints of humanity just lying beneath his well-travelled visage.  Graff is certainly a very grey character whose actions border on being mean-spirited as he purposely navigates Ender into situations where conflict will naturally erupt.  However, though his actions are morally ambiguous there is also no doubting his resolve and ultimate goal to ensure that the human race has a future amongst the stars.

Viola Davis as Graff’s psychology specialist turns in fine work opposite Ford but poor Ben Kingsley suffers from having both too small a role as well as utilizing an incredibly over-the-top accent that works in concert with his facial tattoos to paint a picture of a man who does nothing but chew scenery like it is going out of style.

That said director/writer Gavin Hood gets high marks for managing to craft a film that truly does contain all the important elements from the source material.  Yes, much of the narrative is condensed and in some points truncated but the overall pace and tone really work in conjunction with Ender’s growth as a human being.  In some ways Hood is redeemed from his previous work, the absolutely awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine film that is hated to no end by fans as Ender’s Game is both compelling and visually appealing.

The visual highlight comes from all the sequences shot in the Academy’s zero-G Battle Room where the cadets fight in teams against one another in a truly 3D space.  Although anyone who has seen Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity might not agree, the zero-G scenes in Ender’s Game really come alive as the cadets float realistically and there is a natural progression of strategy involved as they come to grips with the fact that combat in space cannot merely be like the past where ships fought one another on essentially a 2D plane.

Make no mistake, Ender’s Game is a dark and decidedly slow-burn film that really has no funny bone whatsoever and those going to see it thinking it is either a non-stop action flick or one with much levity will probably come away feeling completely discombobulated.  Even the huge action set-pieces feel inherently different from traditional Hollywood blockbuster fare since all of them are basically training exercises, at least seen through the cadets’ perspective.  This is actually very important as attempting to make training sessions seem tense and filled with drama is tough as the audience intrinsically knows that in the end there’s nothing really at stake besides the grade each student will receive for their performance.

Also, the actual space battle sequences, while visually arresting, feel a bit detached as director Gavin Hood films them as a kind of combination of Tom Cruise in Minority Report and anyone playing a Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect game as actor Asa Butterfield basically waves his hands and gestures his commands through a holographic interface while barking orders to his team who, all seem to be using some form of mouse/keyboard input.  It makes for a slightly jarring visual and the closest analogy would be like watching an orchestra conductor wail away with his/her baton while the rest of the musicians went about their business with their instruments.

Ender’s Game is very much unlike other alien invasion films which end on a highly charged emotional note prompting audience members to cheer and pump their fists.  Instead, this is a very cerebral movie and though it hides it well, is filled with an intoxicating kind of morality play that lies beneath the surface throughout the entire run time.  For a movie that is meant to target the same teen crowd as Twilight and The Hunger Games, this moral ambiguity might feel inherently off-putting as the movie espouses a view where the world is never so black and white and this concept extends to virtually all the major characters.

Ender’s Game is a well-made cerebral Sci-Fi flick that, while missing a ton of content from the source material, still manages to impress due to the stellar performances from its top-billed actors as well as the richly layered narrative that will leave audiences thinking about it long after the end credits roll.  It certainly is not a perfect film but it is a grade higher than other teen-focused movies that seem to create worlds where everything is painted as either good or evil.

Nevertheless, while having a cast mainly of teen actors is always a gamble, this is one case where the original narrative that had them even younger would have packed a much more emotional punch.  Obviously, Hollywood was not going to fund a morally ambiguous movie where adults routinely toyed with the emotional state of children as that would certainly be deemed taboo, yet it would have resulted in a much rawer and more powerful narrative that is purposely meant to challenge viewers to confront tough social issues.  As it stands, Ender’s Game is a decent movie and proves that director Gavin Hood has a future in Hollywood even though the series might never see its intended sequel.

**1/2 out of ****

2013, USA, 114 Min, Summit Entertainment, PG-13
Directed by Gavin Hood
Written by Gavin Hood
Based on the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Produced by Orson Scott Card, Robert Chartoff, Lynn Hendee, Alex Kurtzman, Linda McDonough, Roberto Orci, Gigi Pritzker, Ed Ulbrich
Executive Producer David Coatsworth, Deborah Del Prete, Bill Lischak, Ted Ravinett, Venkatesh Roddam, Mandy Safavi, Ivy Zhong
Music by Steve Jablonsky
Cinematography by Donald McAlpine
Film Editing by Lee Smith, Zach Staenberg

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

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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