Friday, November 1, 2013

The Homeless Nerd Reviews: Ender's Game

At a glance- science-fiction children go to war against aliens

What is it?   Based on the novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game is set in the future after an alien attack by the Formic (called the 'buggers' in the novel).  Earth is set to counter-attack the aliens, but needs a new breed of commanders, who start training as children.  This is a somewhat hard-SF novel, that is, it's based mostly on science and not thinly-veiled fantasy like Star Wars.  It is not really dystopian, but the future of the story is not a happy one.  And for being written in the 70s it has some fairly high-tech machinery like faster-than-light communication and Dr. Device, a cannon that disintegrates anything it hits.  This is a strange book/story, because while it is military SF, its protagonist is a kid.  Which may throw some people, who might not like it because "children don't think or act like that," but that's what drew me to the story.  As a kid I remember not liking most kids stuff, it was too stupid, it talked down to me.  I liked to read and watch the same things my parents did.  Transformers and GI Joe were entertaining, but you knew they were 'kids stuff' whereas Bugs Bunny was actually kind of smart and funny as well (only Bugs could do the 3 day epic Wagner opera in 8 minutes).  Ender is a kid who doesn't think or act like kid, which may make him more or less 'realistic' depending on your point of view about children.

The acting- Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin does a pretty good job.  His face manages to convey a good amount of emotion, which is vital since most of the story is really about what's going on in Ender's head.  My only complaint about him would be that he's too tall, a shorter actor would have conveyed Ender's underdog theme better visually.  Harrison Ford as Colonel Graf makes a strong appearance, which feels oddly out of balance if you've read the book.  In the book Graf only appears a few times, in the movie they kept all those times (and added a little), but dropped so much other stuff that Graf suddenly moves from background character to the forefront.  Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak and Abigail Breslin as Peter and Valentine Wiggin have so little screen time that there's no point in rating their performances, another divergence from the book where they are just as important, in different ways, as Ender himself.  Ben Kingsley makes a strong showing as Mazor Rackham, with his Maori tattoos (sadly, only at the end of the story).  Nonso Anozie as Dap is actually the only character I liked better in the movie than in the book (book Dap is forgettable, movie Dap is cool).  Lastly all the other kids do a decent job for the little screen time they get, though Hailee Steinfeld as Petra has a much bigger role than in the book, and almost a teen-romance sub-plot that is totally different from the book, and almost (but not quite) works in the movie.

The story- When I heard that they were going to make The Hobbit into 3 movies of 3 hours each I thought to myself, "that's too long."  There just isn't enough material in the novel to support that many films.  On the opposite side, Ender's Game really, really, really should have been two movies.  If I had to give a one-word review of the movie it would be: rushed.  Everything just goes by too fast.  Ender is a Third, that is the third child of his parents, in a future when only two children are allowed to each family (presumably due to over-population, never really addressed a lot in the book).  After a devastating war with aliens, the planetary government is looking for commanders to lead the counter-attack against the aliens, on their own worlds instead of Earth.  Ender's brother Peter is brilliant, but vicious.  His sister Valentine is brilliant, but compassionate.  So the government allows Ender to be born, with a mix of empathy to read his opponents and determination to defeat them totally.  This is the core foundation of the whole story, and is totally neglected in the movie.
    Ender doesn't really want to be a soldier, but he is determined to protect his sister from the alien threat just as she protected him from the cruelty of their brother.  Again, not really used in the movie except for quick, passing glimpses.  Worst of all, Ender is constantly isolated- no one ever helps him, he has to look after himself.  Sadly, in the movie he is almost always shown with others, he lacks the alone-ness that made him push himself to be the best soldier, and later becomes one of the burdens of being a commander.  He goes to Battle School, a space station that puts kids in armies fighting in a zero-gravity game.  There he manages to outwit the bullies, become the top soldier, then create his own army, and become the top commander.  Which, in the movie, is about 5 scenes.  We hear how brilliant he is, and get to see him lead a whopping total of one battle.  Really?  Anybody can win once, Ender's power was that he always won, he was undefeated.  He starts as a misfit, not well liked by the other kids in both book and movie.  In the book he subtly and cleaverly manipulates the bully to break up trouble before it really starts.  In the movie he is belligerent towards his teachers once, and then all the kids magically love him.
    I know I'm doing a lot of talking about the book for a movie review, but I feel it's necessary not just because the movie is based on a book, but because it says a lot about the approach of books and movies, and the kinds of stories you can tell with each.  The unlimited imagination you bring to a book means that a story can literally put you inside the head of a character, seeing the world through their eyes and feeling their feelings.  But a movie, being visual, has to keep you at arm's length, outside and watching as events unfold.  I don't know why Hollywood hates the voice-over, which at least provides a little insight into a character while the action is happening.  Some of it is used here, as Ender narrating emails to his sister, but not enough.  This is a story about the inner development of a child into a man, burdened with the responsibilities of his intellect and actions and the society and people that use him - all internal stuff, which does not play well in an external film.  There are ways to do it, look at Momento, which for all the complexity of its storytelling manages to really put you in the disjointed world of its main character.  Sadly Ender's Game doesn't hit that strong note, and things just flash by without any proper build up for the pay off, and a lot of very good sub-plots that support the main story got cut out.
    So is this just another forgettable special effects extravaganza?  No, it's not that bad.  It has some emotion, some passion.  It looks great, the Battle Room is perfect, absolutely perfect (and then the final Command School setup is over-done, can't have everything I guess).  It's a little different from most science-fiction movies, which is a good thing.

My recommendation- if you like military- or science-fiction then catch the cheap show, and if you even liked just a tiny bit of it go get the book, it won several top awards for a reason.  Also, after you read the book of Ender's Game, read Ender's Shadow, which provides a wonderful re-telling of the main story from a different point of view.

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