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Entries in Ender's Game [2013] (1)

Tuesday
Nov052013

Ender's Game (2013)

Games in the Military

Having not read Ender's Game, the wildly popular 1985 sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card, I had very little baggage when sitting down to watch Gavin Hood's film adaptation. I'd read a few issues of the Marvel Comics spin-off a few years ago, and was familiar with the recent controversy surrounding Card's homophobic rants. But to me, Ender's Game was just another in the tiresome procession of franchise hopefuls looking to fill the void left by the Harry Potter series--complete with a CGI-heavy trailer bent on bludgeoning me with its epic-ness. For the most part, that's what the film turned out to be--but I recommend it anyway.

This endorsement is not whole-hearted. In fact, it's a veritable mine-field of caveats. But in bringing this story to the big screen, the filmmakers have built a pop-cultural Trojan horse that may just stir some cows at the popcorn trough. I spent much of the movie squirming in bored frustration, shackled by my stupid, unrelenting No Walk-outs policy. But in the last fifteen minutes, Hood and Card turned the whole production on its head, compelling me to give it a second glance during the very next screening. I didn't, of course, because absorbing so much garbage (even beautiful garbage) over four hours is unhealthy. I considered it, though, which must count for something.

Ender's Game's biggest problem is that the people behind it seem to have made the film strictly for fans of the book. They don't do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of character development, plot progression, or squeezing the very best out of their actors--precisely because the built-in audience is potentially substantial enough to turn a profit on opening weekend. This is speculation, of course, but a puzzling laziness permeates the film, which I can't imagine is attractive to anyone not already in love with the source material.

Right out of the gate, we're presented with two lousy performances by child actors: Asa Butterfield as a pre-teen military genius named Ender Wiggin, and Caleb J. Thaggard as the big, dumb bully who picks on him. One might expect that the keepers of the kingdom would be very particular in populating their mega-million-dollar blockbuster, but the opening ten minutes of this thing are strictly Amateur Hour. Marked by painful over-acting that would make even a Disney Channel casting director to call "time out", I was taken back to that wonderful scene in Wayne's World 2 where Mike Myers replacess a bad bit-player with Charlton Heston, mid-scene.

Sorry, I'll do my best not to make this review a detour-heavy bitch-fest. But Ender's Game practically begs for a minute-by-minute analysis of the filmmakers' poor decisions.

Ender is part of a global military initiative in which children are trained to remotely control weaponized spaceships. Fifty years earlier, an insect-like alien race, known as the Formics, nearly wiped out mankind in their efforts to colonize Earth. In our darkest hour, a brave fighter pilot flew his plane into the heart of the main command ship and set off a chain reaction that wiped out the invading fleet. And, yes, I'm still writing about Ender's Game, not Independence Day.

Anyway, we pull back from the brink of annihilation and not only create a unified global society, but also invent technologies that put Star Trek to shame; it's unclear just how absolute the Formics' devastation was, but I imagine our rebounding on such a grand scale is akin to Fred Flintstone inventing the iPhone while wading through a planet full of dinosaur carcasses. Call this nitpicking if you want; call it not understanding fantasy writing if it makes you feel better--but letting stuff like this and the very similar Pacific Rim off the hook means also giving a pass to far less "legit" entertainment (Dark of the Moon, anyone?).

True to the Harry Potter model, Ender is recognized as the "chosen one" (or at least a chosen one) by an elder statesman and a seemingly tough-as-nails teacher (Harrison Ford and Viola Davis, standing in for Richard Harris and Maggie Smith, respectively), and shipped off to an elite training academy. There, he eventually leads a clique of misfits, including a sassy, would-be love interest (Hailee "Hermione" Steinfeld) and a non-entity of a sorta-sidekick (Aramis "Ron" Knight). There's even a snotty rival kid who leads his own training squad, and it's a credit to actor Moises Arias that I eventually stopped thinking about how ridiculously short he is and enjoyed his comparatively nuanced and electrifying performance.

After establishing this competitive relationship, Ender's Game picks up steam. The middle of the film takes place in various combat and mind-game simulators--predominantly, a type of zero-G soccer match in which guns are not only permitted, but crucial to the sport. I also liked the virtual world that Ender travels to as a mouse facing various philosophical and spiritual challenges. It's so immersive that Hood takes his movie down that rabbit hole along with its protagonist.

Of course, at the heart of this training is a Doomsday Clock: probes have detected a massive Formic fleet that appears poised to re-invade our planet. Ender and his friends are being groomed to pilot a drone offensive that will incapacitate the enemy before they have a chance to strike. The kids' final training exercise--a virtual invasion of the Formic home world--turns out to be the real deal.* Because Ender hates to lose, he changes tactics towards the end of the battle and orders his atomizing Death Star canon to fire directly into the planet's core. Moments later, he and his crew rejoice at their brilliant, fake genocide maneuver, while the military overseers react first in horror and then in ghoulish triumph.

As Ender realizes what he's done, the film shifts from being about misfits, teamwork, or grumpy geniuses, and opens up to a wider, darker reality only hinted at in earlier scenes. One of my biggest gripes with movies of this kind, is that the fate of the universe almost always rests on an uncharismatic white kid who leads a revolution from an isolated house of privilege. Fortunately, Ender Wiggin learns something profound from his decisions, and sets off to make things right.

The film ends not only with the promise of a sequel, but one that might actually mean something. Thanks to bad press and a merely modest opening, though, fans may have to turn to the books to learn how things pan out. There are worse things, I guess, and I should be grateful that I'll likely be spared another dozen shots of Ford looking solemnly out of windows while Butterfield pouts in his quarters; in fairness, both actors come alive in their final scene together--which is the point of the whole story--but it's no fun watching self-serious, socially awkward characters try to carry a movie.

And, honestly, what would be the point of a follow-up? So much of Ender's Game feels like a retread. Granted, the novel came out more than ten years before many of the movies it appears to rip off. But there's nothing here to suggest how special this particular story is supposed to be--other than a refreshingly conventional ending that follows a lot of familiar crap. It looks like Starship Troopers and Independence Day and the half-dozen other sci-fi epics that ripped off those movies.

Saying, "Yeah, but Ender's Game started it all" is A) untrue, and B) sort of like saying a McDonald's cheeseburger is better than a Burger King cheeseburger because its brand of fake beef is more established. In the same way I'd recommend fast food only when there are no other options available, Ender's Game is a filling enough substitute for real entertainment only if you've already seen all the quality movies at the multiplex.

*That's only a spoiler if you have no idea how movies work, so please don't bother hitting "Send" on whatever angry thing you're typing right now.