Monday, November 11, 2013

Ender's Game

Since its release in 1985, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game has amassed a sizable fan base, spawned several sequels, and come to be widely regarded as one of the great science fiction novels (if not the greatest) of the last 30 years.  Scott Card once declared the book “unfilmable,” but writer/director Gavin Hood has risen to the challenge, delivering a satisfying film that falls short of the intelligence and complexity of the source material but that stands on its own and gets the big stuff right.

Years after fighting a war with an alien race, humanity prepares for what it sees as the inevitable next confrontation.  An international military alliance establishes Battle School, an academy designed to produce tactical strategists by subjecting brilliant children to rigorous training.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a gifted 12 year old boy, enlists in Battle School at the urging of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford).  As Ender rises within the ranks via a series of war games and simulations, he learns more about his enemy and himself.

The Battle Room makes for some of the book’s most memorable scenes, and the film doesn’t disappoint.  This immense, zero-gravity training ground looks gorgeous onscreen, and the war games the students play come off as simple and complex at once.  Within the vast, glass-enclosed sphere, teams of students attempt to cross to their opponents’ gate while avoiding being shot by weapons that immobilize them.  It’s in these sequences that the film feels most alive, so much so that I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more minutes there.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film is the overall timespan; in the novel, Ender enrolls in Battle School at age six, so by age 12, he’s been training for half his life.  On screen, those six years are condensed into one; the change makes sense (switching actors would be jarring, after all), though it muddies a few plot points, especially Ender’s relationships with his sister and brother.  The scenes on Earth with Ender’s family ring hollow, and without proper explanation and character building, Ender’s relationship with his sister never resonates the way it should.

Lead performances are strong with a mix from the sides.  Asa Butterfield’s performance effectively suggests the combination of insecurity and superiority inherent in a young genius.  Harrison Ford and Viola Davis lend credibility as high-ranking military officers, and Ben Kingsley (the disclosure of whose character name would constitute a spoiler) brings some needed dramatic weight to the film’s third act.  Haliee Steinfeld, who was so memorable as Mattie in True Grit (2010), does well with what she’s given as Petra, one of Ender’s best friends in the school.  Unfortunately, some side characters come off more like caricatures than real people, undermining the seriousness of the setting.

The story addresses the moral complexities of war and of placing belief systems on children, with the finale being especially thought-provoking.  Ender’s Game achieves momentary greatness when firing on all cylinders, but little cracks in the presentation (occasional weaknesses in dialogue, acting, or visuals that look more like polished effects than gritty, wartime realities) prevent the film from meeting its full potential.  A few tweaks could have improved it, but Ender’s Game retains the crucial components that made the book a phenomenon.  I hope it turns viewers toward the source material, as anyone intrigued by the questions raised onscreen would find even more to love on paper.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material

Ender’s Game contains some violence, though not as much as the book. You don’t see much blood, but as Ender faces bullying from his classmates, he fights back pretty viciously to defend himself.  Even though the hero gets in some fights (he has adopted a military mindset, after all), retaliatory and preemptive violence is not necessarily celebrated.  It’s a morally complex story.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Muslims Are Coming

In the years since September 11, 2001, Muslims have become the most feared minority in America.  It’s not unusual to hear politicians or commentators voice broad concerns about Muslims, using now-commonplace words rarely heard in the Clinton years, such as jihad, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Sharia Law.  There’s an abundance of American misinformation about Islam, and while countering that ignorance with humor might not be the first strategy you’d expect (especially given Islam’s reputation as a religion that takes itself too seriously), it makes sense.  Getting to know people has always been the best way to break misconceptions, and nothing brings people together like laughter.

The Muslims Are Coming follows a nationwide tour by a group of Muslim-American comedians led by Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah.  Hoping to combat Islamophobia through humor, these comedians visit some of the most conservative areas in the country, from rural Alabama to Salt Lake City.  Their stand-up routines elicit plenty of laughs, but the film’s real gems are the street interviews conducted before or after the stand-up performances.  The comedians visit with patrons at a gun show.  They man a street-side booth titled, “Ask a Muslim,” where people can ask them anything.  In Salt Lake City, they offer free hugs beneath a “Hug a Muslim” sign.  These social experiments yield interesting results.

In some cases, the comedians are met with open hostility, but those are the exceptions.  Some people need to feel things out first; one woman asks, “What did you think of 9/11?” prompting a later reflection by Negin Farsad: “How could there be more than one answer to that question?”  For the most part, people are friendly.  The Muslims encounter more uncertainty than hate, and as they leave each city, you see more than the minds of the townspeople changing; you see the Muslim comedians’ perception of America changing as well.

The stand-up routines and side interviews highlight Muslim diversity.  Some Muslims enjoy poking fun at themselves and some don’t.  Some devoutly practice more conservative forms of Islam, while others stand on the agnostic fringes.  Islam has that diversity in common with every major religion, but the many faces of Islam pose a challenge to those who would foster understanding, especially when mainstream media so frequently focus on the faith’s most extreme practitioners.  The Muslims Are Coming opens with a hilarious montage of fear mongering clips from Fox News and CNN, but it’s no wonder watching it why so many Americans are confused or afraid.

Negin Farsad’s unique position as a female Muslim comedian carries its own difficulties; a poignant scene comes when a group of Muslim women walk out during one of Farsad’s sexually explicit routines.  “I wish I had more support from certain corners of the Muslim community, but I just don’t.”  The Muslims Are Coming mixes thought-provoking insight with some hilarious moments, and interviews with journalists and comedians such as Jon Stewart, David Cross, Rachel Maddow, and Soledad O’Brien further explore how current perceptions of Islam developed.  Ultimately heartwarming, The Muslims Are Coming celebrates American diversity and tolerance, exposing encouraging sides of both America and Islam that viewers may not have seen before.  And it’s also really funny.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Unrated

The Muslims Are Coming features frequent profanity of all sorts, including sexually-explicit jokes and occasional examples of hate speech.