November 21, 2013

Ender’s Game Fails to Impress

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Ender’s Game is an awkward movie, hurriedly oscillating between standard big-budget action and thought provoking sci-fi criticism. It fails to ever capture the tone that has allowed Orson Scott Card’s book to remain a favorite of young teens 28 years after it was first published. Instead, it feels like a project batted back and forth between producers wishing to stay true to the spirit of the book and executives with an eye focused on the bottom line. Unfortunately, the movie largely fails on both fronts, resulting in disappointment for viewers, whether or not they are familiar with the source material.

Written and directed by Gavin Hood (Card receives a producer credit), Ender’s Game tells the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a brilliant young boy selected to attend the prestigious Battle School in a future where humans are attempting to protect themselves from the supposedly imminent return of the alien Formics. At a distance, Ender’s progress is followed closely by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). Believing him to be the ideal future commander for the International Fleet, they rapidly push Ender through the rigorous training so that he will be ready and capable when the need arises.

Ender’s training forms the center of the film. Manipulated and molded to the desire of Graff, his ascension from precocious kid to trained killer is the overarching theme and most interesting aspect of the movie. It is also the reason why this story is just as relevant today as it was 28 years ago. Ender — and all the citizens of Earth — are motivated by fear and paranoia, which, in turn, is supplied by propaganda-espousing media. Years into his training, Ender realizes “[he] still knows nothing about [his] enemy,” but is quickly rebuked for such a foolish notion. In a world of drones, Fox News, reports of “aliens” and standardized testing, these issues remain omnipresent. Several times we see Ender and his similarly young peers, dressed in uniforms, carrying guns (albeit training weapons) and marching and chanting. It could have been a wonderfully poignant satire, but you cannot help but feel that part of the movie truly believes in the exploitation and warping of these children.

One of the crucial aspects of Ender’s training is isolation and loneliness, a worthy and fascinating topic for any medium but a rather difficult idea to present in an action film. So while it is touched upon, it is not explored as it is in the book. Without that universally relatable touch point, Ender himself begins to assume an almost alien form: He is human, but robotic in his intelligence and logical ability. We still are fond of him, but Ender is never allowed to develop the depth that is inherent to the complex, loving and identifiable human that

the book constructs. Indeed, surrounded by other flat, undeveloped characters, the movie lacks this human element. It halfheartedly tries to develop the relationship between Ender and an older girl, Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) but the relationship never really works, hampered by corny lines and uncomfortable acting. Ford, stuck training the next Han Solo, is unable to bring to the film any of his trademark charisma, as he spends as much of the movie looking at screens and talking to holograms as he does interacting with other people. Viola Davis does a commendable job though being the one adult in the room with a conscience, but it is not enough to lend the film balance.

The graphics are well done, although probably not necessary and often distracting. Everything that Ender is learning and doing is based on being tactical, but the movie still goes out of its way to show off fancy graphics and supposedly futuristic ships. I did enjoy seeing the physical manifestation of the Battle Room, a gravity-free area where Ender and the other trainees go to compete in mock war games that are supposed to develop tactical ability. Still, even this falls into the pitfalls of big budget action cinema, with one sequence showing Ender duel wielding guns and spinning and shooting his enemies like he is some sort of child Jack Bauer.

Really what we end up with is a very watered down, superficial version of the book. This movie hits all of the major points, but never explores them. Stuck hovering between summer blockbuster and thought provoking sci-fi, the Ender’s Game cheats both. I would recommend it to people who really loved the book if for no reason other than nostalgia, but I truly struggle to see how anyone new could appreciate the movie.

Finally, I will briefly comment on the controversy surrounding the movie. Card has revealed himself to be a radical, especially with regard to the issue of same-sex marriage, which he is staunchly against. As a result, several groups have called for the movie to be boycotted. However, his archaic view is very much in contrast to the acceptance, tolerance and love — even of one’s enemy — that is promoted in Ender’s Game. If you want to see it, I encourage doing so and appreciating the themes of the movie, not the spiteful views of the author.