Wednesday, November 13, 2013

ENDER'S GAME Is Entertaining But Bland Sci-Fi


- Somehow, Ender's Game (the book) was something of a cultural blind spot for me. I'm not sure how or why, but I knew of it only by reputation before going into the movie adaptation. I'm always a little weary of movies like this suffering from compression problems that seem to so often go hand-in-hand with the adaptation process. And I think ENDER'S GAME does indeed suffer from the sort of jumpiness and rushed-feeling narrative that can plague this sort of endeavor. Overall, I found this to be a decently enjoyable film - and in some ways, it's an interesting departure from the kind of story that is typical of a big Hollywood franchise-starter type movie. But at the end of the day, the movie never 100% sold me on its basic premise, never fully made me buy into its world. And for sci-fi, that is an issue.

ENDER'S GAME tells the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), an outwardly meek but inwardly strong young boy who - in a world that is picking itself up and putting itself back together after a devastating alien invasion - is part of a corps of child-soldiers being trained to decimate earth's enemies. It's believed that only children possess the mental dexterity and intuition to properly wage the space battles of the future. However, not just anyone makes the final cut to actually become an active soldier. Children in the program are put through a rigorous series of tests and challenges (including being separated into teams that compete in various competitions), and only a select few make it past the various stages of training. From the start, the Big Brother-like leaders of the International Army have their eye on Ender. One, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes Ender to be a messianic figure who will lead the army's fight against the bug-like alien Formecs. And so, the seemingly unassuming Ender moves up from rank to rank - leading his own team, gaining respect, and displaying an increasing amount of cold calculation, tough-but-fair leadership, and knack for military-style strategy on the simulated battlefield. Intrigue also begins to build around the true nature of the war between humans and Formecs, and the real agenda of Graff and his cohorts.

Before I get to Asa Butterfield, I'll say that one of the clear and geek-out worthy highlights of ENDER'S GAME is the fact that it's got a very game, very engaged-seeming Harrison Ford in one of the lead roles. It's a lot of fun to see Ford in this sort of sci-fi story again, and this is easily one of his more memorable performances in years. We're not talking Oscar-caliber or anything - this is sort of Ford doing the classic Ford gruff-but-lovable thing, at times in semi-cartoonish fashion. But it's a fun performance, and a lot of the movie's best moments arrive when Ford brings the gravitas. One other guy who I'll sort of lump in with Ford in the awesome category is Nonso Anozie, who you will probably recognize from Game of Thrones. Anozie plays one of Graff's top lieutenants, sort of the drill sergeant for Ender and the other kids. And he pretty much rules it, stealing many scenes as a badass hiding a heart of gold.

As for Butterfield, he's pretty good as Ender, but not mind-blowingly good. Some of that can probably be blamed on the script - Butterfield, as Ender, is forced to make a lot of character leaps that feel like a stretch. The jumpiness of the script demands that Ender evolve from quiet loner to charismatic leader of men in what feels like a very abbreviated timeframe. What Butterfield does bring to Ender is a slightly American Psycho-esque feeling of possible evil intent lurking beneath. I don't know if that's in the book at all, but Butterfield does a nice job of making you wonder if Ender is one of those "could save us all, could destroy us all" types. I suspect Butterfield has got the chops to make a great Ender, but it may be that the script is asking too much of him and sort of undermining his performance with its leaps.

Moises Arias is an actor who got on my radar this past summer with his scene-stealing comedic turn in The Kings of Summer. Here, he's the Biff to Ender's Marty McFly, the somewhat cartoonishly vile rival kid-soldier named Bonzo. I have mixed feelings about Bonzo in the movie. I like Arias a lot, but his presence sort of reinforces the movie's slightly silly nature. Arias makes Bonzo a memorable villain, but the performance is perhaps a little broad, especially as compared to Butterfield's more serious version of Ender.

Other excellent actors seem to do the most with what they can, but they're stuck with underwritten parts. This is true of Hailee Steinfeld's Petra. I wanted some more exploration of her character, but she is mostly there to be a friend / crush for Ender. I'm pretty confident that Steinfeld is going to really wow us with her acting in the year's ahead, but this, alas, is not a showpiece role for her. A similar go-nowhere role belongs to Viola Davis, who seems to be slumming it as an army therapist, who is mostly around to challenge Ford's views on Ender and the other kids. One more sort-of-pointless part for a big-name actor goes to Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, a legendary soldier with a mysterious past. Rackham seems randomly thrown into the movie to be yet another Obi-Wan like figure for Ender, but he sadly adds next to nothing to the film.

I've been talking about the jumpiness of the film, and I'll elaborate a bit. Everything just feels very rushed and hyper-compressed, but in a frustrating, head-scratching sort of way. I don't know if writer/director Gavin Hood was forced to make last-minute cuts or something, but too often it feels like we're watching the Cliff's Notes of the book, and not a story that works on its own. Ender seems to leap from rank to rank, from station to station, from unit to unit. It almost becomes comical as the movie goes on. He goes from army scrub to supreme leader in what feels like half an hour. What this means is that the film sets up certain key plot elements - like the team competition among the kids (a sort of capture-the-flag in zero-gravity game) - as major events, but then seems to rush through them, making us wonder what all the build-up was for in the first place. It's funny, you'd think the movie would do more to denote the passage of time, but things play out in a very linear manner. So again, it feels like the entire movie plays out over a few days' time, when the implication is that we're seeing something that should feel longer, more drawn-out, more epic.

On the premise itself: again, I'm just not sure that the movie does a great job of selling it. It feels like only brief lip-service is paid to why, exactly, the world has decided that only kids can fight this war. And it's never really shown or reinforced why the experienced adults shouldn't be involved. As the movie presents things, it starts to feel a little absurd. Ender knows next to nothing about real war, and yet the grizzled vet Graff just stands by and lets him fight, without even giving advice or input on tactics? Visually, the movie doesn't do a great job of selling this at all. Okay, sure, I could see why the older Ford might have a tough time competing in the zero-gravity games. But when subsequent battles simply involve kids sitting at manned battlestations and pulling triggers when called upon - why not have experienced sharpshooters in those positions? Finally, without spoiling anything, the end of the movie feels to me like a major cheat. Perhaps it's explained better in the book, but here, the tactic used in the end-game (hmmm ...) of the final battle ... it feels like the sort of thing that *someone* would have thought of before Ender spontaneously decides to go in that direction. And it feels like the kind of thing that wouldn't exactly require a messianic kid to think of / carry out. Am I missing something? Either way, the big finale, to me, feels decidedly undercooked.

Overall, I still enjoyed ENDER'S GAME in that it's a relatively breezy, sci-fi-lite film with some cool visuals and fun performances. Certain scenes, taken individually, are a lot of fun as eye-candy set-pieces (all the zero-g stuff looks great, and these scenes are shot with immersive fluidity by Gavin Hood). And there are some interesting socio-political elements to the plot that I found intriguing. Still, I was left with a feeling that this could have been something more - a truly thought-provoking and disturbing sci-fi story - if only the adaptation was done with a bit more elegance and with a better eye towards making this work as a standalone story (and less as a calculated, all-things-to-all-people franchise-starter). As it stands, Ender's Game is worth checking out, but not the must-see it might have been.

My Grade: B

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