Saturday, December 7, 2013

Ender's Game

Alternate Title:  Better with Kinect

One sentence synopsis:  Boy-genius Ender Wiggin trains at a futuristic battle school to become the commander of Earth's war against an alien species.

A Note Before we Begin:  What a hornet's nest this film turned out to be, so tied up in the politics surrounding Orson Scott Card that it's become borderline impossible to speak of it as a film. Two different people informed me that they would not read my reviews any longer if I so much as went to see this movie, irrespective of the score I gave it. While I certainly have no sympathy for Card's politics, this absolutist rejection is a line of thought I find uncomfortably akin to those who threw books onto bonfires because their authors were liberals or Jews, and lest any lingering firebrands remain, I saw this movie without reference to Card's homophobia, and will be reviewing it as such. If this policy is not to your liking, there are plenty of other reviewers to follow.

Things Havoc liked:  The more I think about Enders' Game, the more I wonder if it wasn't intended as a sequel to Independence Day, and re-purposed partway through with the book in mind. See if the concept sounds familiar to you: 30 years after defeating a massive alien battlefleet which nearly annihilated the planet and destroyed many major cities, the humans have harvested alien technology and constructed a unified government and military capable of visiting the war back on the aliens themselves. In the flashback scene at the beginning of the film, we watch as the hero of the previous war flies his lone jet fighter up into the center of a massive alien mothership, striking its weak point and destroying it and the surrounding fighters in a single, cataclysmic blow. It was enough that I sat there wondering if this mystery pilot informed the aliens that he was "baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack".

When one wishes to make a film, be it sci-fi extravaganza or historical manners piece, one could do worse than to start by assembling a cast of actors whom I have enjoyed in many movies previously, and offer to present them to me. It is in this spirit that Ender's Game stars Harrison Ford, who finally breaks his recent streak of phoning it in, playing Colonel Graff, the commander of Earth's defense forces, who has been assigned, for reasons never made entirely clear, to recruit children and teenagers for training as potential commanders of the space force assigned to fight the war against the aliens. Ford's character is a pragmatist first and foremost, employing his customary gravelly, seen-everything voice, defending his choices as he plays psychological games to draw out the inner fighters and sociopaths of his would-be trainees. Assisting him in this endeavor are Ben Kingsley, playing Mazer Rackham (?), a part-Maori tactical trainer who ruthlessly molds the best candidates into the necessary killers, and Viola Davis as Gwen Anderson, the psychological expert in charge of monitoring the social dynamics of the kids so as to identify those possessing the best traits. All of these people do excellent jobs in roles that should frankly be ludicrously silly, bearing in mind the entire time that there are consequences to inaction, even as they debate the whens, hows, and whyfors. As the adults in the room, they are the ones charged with lending the film a patina of "realness", and do so very well.

But of course this film is not about the adults, but the kids, led by Hugo's star, Asa Butterfield, as the titular Ender Wiggin (where do they get these names?), a boy recruited into "battle school" and gradually molded over the course of the film into someone's ideal of the perfect commander. Though I'm not entirely certain what accent he was aiming at (and I'm not certain he was either), Butterfield actually does very well here, as he did in the aforementioned Hugo, playing a kid trying to deal with almost unfathomable pressure applied steadily to him since birth to conquer, win, and be the best. He manages to show the ruthless and innocent sides of Ender's character (mostly) without the need for showy emotional scenes, and holds his own against Ford and his former co-star Kingsley effortlessly. Alongside him is Hailee Steinfeld, of True Grit (my first ever review!), whose performance, while nowhere near the standout of the aforementioned film, still complements Butterfield's exceptionally well, displaying the effortless confidence that particularly smart teenagers seem to possess (or at least fake) in limitless quantities. The majority of the other kids, played by various actors I've understandably never heard of, are just as good, whether their roles are antagonistic, supporting, or a mixture of both.

It's no surprise anymore when a blockbuster comes replete with excellent effects, but Ender's Game's manage to be noteworthy nonetheless. Alien designs are weird enough and appropriately insectoid, while the space stations appear sufficiently strangely-shaped to be believable. Battle sequences are crisp and involve at least a nod to physics, in that spaceships shatter rather than explode when struck by munitions, and the movie even uses the fact that smashed wreckage in outer space carries momentum and mass as a plot point during one of the more hectic fights. Earlier sequences involving zero-G laser-tag fights employ accurate physics, often used for tactical gain, and the film wisely tends to assume that the audience will be able to figure the physics out intuitively and thus spares us the lesson in Newtonian mechanics. In the cinematography department, the film is shot with unusual sharpness, by what technique I do not know, which enables the viewer to see every imperfection and blemish on every actor's face. I can only assume was a stylistic decision to help humanize characters who are not generally allowed showy scenes of hyper-emotion.

Things Havoc disliked:  The plot of Ender's Game is something one simply has to accept as a base premise. Even the movie appears to state as much, brushing aside the question of just why children are being thrown into command of battlefleets with a quick explanation of reaction times and openness to new ideas, or some such. I'm willing to meet a film halfway, and can therefore accept the premise, but no such excuse offers itself in defense of the writing. Dialog is wooden and stiff from beginning to end, not because of exposition dumps (of which there are many, but which are handled reasonably well), but simply because the characters, child or adult, speak like nobody in history has ever spoken. If one character responds to massive pressure with monotone robot-like utterances, I can understand it, but not when the entire cast acts like they're auditioning for Robocop. Things get worse when the characters are supposed to act relaxed. The actors convey much through expression and vocal tone, but when they open their mouths to talk, its like someone dubbed a completely different set of words in. Director Gavin Hood is also credited as the screenplay writer of this film, and judging by the result, they might have done better to just let Orson Scott Card take over the duties in question, as he at least managed to create a popular book out of the concept unladen by such problems.

But the dialog, stiff though it is, pales in comparison to the major problem of the film, the pacing. Butterfield's last film, Hugo, had massive pacing problems, resulting in a first half that was entirely superfluous to everything. This film not only repeats the same mistake (what was the point of all that laser tag, really?), but compounds the matter by being forced to cram all the rest of the film into what feels like the last twenty minutes of its sub-two-hour run time. As a result, the actual events of the Command School training (which are of considerable importance, given everything), the war itself, and its aftermath, are treated like a cliffs notes version of the actual book, rushed through in such haste that it actually opens plot holes that would otherwise not be there. Is it reasonable to assume, for instance, that tens of thousands of humans could build and inhabit a major military base for twenty-seven years without once exploring a highly visible cave located literally a hundred yards outside the main entrance? A little bit of breathing room would have allowed the film to establish elements like this properly, without giving us the impression that the film was trying to hustle us out the door without thinking things through. Worse yet, this compression means that Kingsley's character, as well as the climactic war that Ender has supposedly been training for, occupy barely a third of the film's runtime (if that). Blockbusters are routinely 2-3 hours nowadays, why was this film forced down into such a restrictive timeslot? And knowing that it was going to be, why would the director not choose to concentrate on the elements that were of the most importance, as opposed to the third consecutive "dealing with a bully who doesn't like him" sequence that Ender is subjected to?

Final thoughts:   Even without considering the politics of its author, Ender's Game is a hard movie to sum up properly. The acting is good, and the film easily comprehensible, despite the literal rocket science it is laden with, and yet the basics of writing and storyboarding are all so wrong as to make one question whether or not some calamity overcame the project mid-production, necessitating unforeseen and clunky changes to the script. I genuinely like both Butterfield and Steinfeld, to say nothing of veterans Kingsley and Ford, but the movie's flaws are such that it's largely irrelevant how well they do their jobs. By no means was Ender's Game an unpleasant movie to sit through (clunky though the dialog did get, especially at the beginning), but I would not expect it to find its way into anyone's catalogue of treasured classics. As such, without getting into the question of whether Orson Scott Card is an unfairly maligned genius or a homophobic reactionary misanthrope, the film of its own volition merits, in my mind, a conclusion that very few of the partisans surrounding its debate will be willing to consider, that of mediocrity.

Not every movie is worthy of the rapturous hagiographies or thunderous denunciations that come with scores on the narrow ends of the bell curve, guys. Some films, despite all the outrage and fire, just don't manage to stand out at all.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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