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.

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