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ENDER’S GAME (2013) review

November 4, 2013

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written by: Gavin Hood

produced by: Roberto Orci, Robert Kurtzman, Gigi Pritzker, Linda McDonough, Robert Chertoff, Lynn Hendee, Orson Scott Card & Ed Ulbrich

directed by: Gavin Hood

rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material) 

runtime: 114 min.

U.S. release date: November 1, 2013

 

Friends are coming up to me asking about the newest “Hunger Games” movie. I mention to them they must be referring to “Catching Fire” which is coming out later this month. They’re adamant I am wrong and mention a movie called “Ender Games”. I laugh, as if Sallah is mispronouncing Belloq, and offer a correction, assuring them they are referring to “Ender’s Game” the long-awaited adaptation of the much-beloved sci-fi book from 1985 by Orson Scott Card. The book was ahead of its time and many consider it a classic and now it’s the latest movie from Gavin Hood, director of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, who also adapted the screenplay.

I get it. It’s confusing. They both have ‘game’ in the title (plural form doesn’t factor in) and they both have teenagers as protagonists. Well, for those who haven’t read Card’s book, a comparison to “The Hunger Games” isn’t too far off, just add a dash of “Starship Troopers” and you’ll have an idea what you’re in store for here.  Fans of the book will have to prepare themselves for some expected changes (you should be used to that by now), not necessarily in content but in pace, since this spectacularly looking movie treks along at quite a clip.

In the future, twelve year-old Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”) has been selected by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) of the International Fleet to join an orbiting Battle School, based on the tactical prowess the boy displayed during a recent tussle with a bully. Graff is looking for “The One” who will lead an army of child soldiers against an alien race of bugs known as  Formics that haven’t attacked humans in decades. Nevertheless, the hard-nosed Graff, along with the cautious Major Anderson (Viola Davis), have decided to train children, convinced they are more adaptable and intuitive and they’re quick learners, but most of all, they’re controllable.

 

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Ender knows he’s special. He knows he’s not like the other kids. His frame may look weak and his build slight, but his methodical mind has proven useful. If only he can stave off his temper, which can lead to fits of rage, similar to that of his volatile older brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak). His little sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), is his only emotional connection, the only one who helps realign him with who he wants to be. Keeping her safe becomes the motivating factor for Ender when he takes Graff up on his offer in order to pursue his full potential.

At the militaristic Battle School, we watch Ender interact with his peers, some are helpful like Petra (Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”) while others, like the intimidating Bonzo (Moisés Arias) remind Ender that bullies are everywhere. As he finds his place amongst the antagonizing cadets around him, his behavior is closely monitored by Graff and Anderson, who carefully monitor how Ender deals with disappointment, less-than-idea situations and blocked email. Ender and the other boys and girls partake in zero gravity games in a chamber specifically designed to prepare them to work together as a team and anticipate their opponents every move. Ender excels at this and grows to become an inspirational leader, despite the critical eyes of his peers. As he graduates to Command School, he’s put in charge of friends like Petra and Bean (Aramis Knight), under the tutelage of Maori hero pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). Caught up in the competitive thrill of the final strategic games, as scrutinized by Graff and his superiors, Ender is shocked into learning the real-world repercussions of his actions and sets out to make things right.

There’s quite a bit here for viewer’s to take in with Hood’s ambitious attempt to bring Card’s beloved material to the big-screen – and IMAX at that! Like most book adaptations though, those unfamiliar with the source are likely to have a more enjoyable time. Hood understandably compacts the specific characterizations and nuances found in the book and therefore, we lose the insight into Ender’s thought process and perspective. It’s clear that the goal is to move the story along, like Cliff Notes on an express train, something even those who haven’t read the book can tell.

 

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The psychological toll and pressure of the teen conflict Ender endures in Battle School is seen on-screen thanks to the solid performance by Butterfield, but it’s so broadly touched on. Davis’s Anderson seems to be the only one concerned with Ender’s emotional welfare, while Ford’s gruff Graff maintains an unwarranted focus on this so-called alien threat. He continuously insists that Ender will be a hero, yet doesn’t prepare the boy for the weight of such “heroics”. But Anderson is marginalized in the third act and the character completely disappears, leaving Kingsley’s mysterious character (who was introduced way too late) to show some concern for the overwhelmed tween.

For the record, it is fun to see Ford back in full-on sci-fi (after he slightly returned to the genre in the mashup “Cowboys & Aliens”) and while he doesn’t come across as bored as he’s been in recent years, you can actually see him having some fun. Not as much fun as his performance earlier this year in  “42” though.

The highlight of the movie is easily the considerably impressive battle games in the second act. Seeing the kids discover how to maneuver and coordinate in zero gravity is cool and something we haven’t seen before. At times it’s difficult to get a bearing on what’s happening, but that’s to be expected when the cameras, manned by cinematographer Donald McAlpine, are following children who are flipping and turning in mid-air. The CGI in these scenes are thankfully subtle with most of the action filmed with commendable practical sets and acrobatic wirework. These scenes hold our interest, but there’s something about the excitement and the exuberance of these kids, led by Butterfield and Steinfeld, that keep us involved.

 

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That being said, “Ender’s Game” dropped the ball in its first and third acts. There was an opportunity to explain why Ender was referring to himself as “a third” (in the process, specifying some world-building that was never fully-realized) and flesh out the contentious relationship he has with his brother Peter, but Hood sees no need for it. That’s too bad, since Card’s book relies on how Ender views himself and the impact his cruel brother has on him. All that is either subtle mentioned or broadly touched on. We’re supposed to just shrug along and be dazzled by the scope of it all. The only thing is, there’s some intriguing character study potential here, it’s just not explored. Is it fear of taking away from the blockbuster bigness of it all? If so, that’s too bad.

One of the trickier aspects of the book to adapt is this computer game that Ender plays. It’s an absorbing game that plays off Ender’s moral psyche and it would definitely be a challenge to being to the screen, but Hood and his animators do a good job with it, giving the game a “Final Fantasy” feel to it. Unfortunately, it kind of flails in the movie’s fuzzy ending, right when it needs to convince us of a crucial connection between the enemy and Ender. That sequence was clumsy and confusing and just another aspect of the movie that we’re supposed just go along with.

While “Ender’s Game” offers some considerable themes and concepts to ponder, they are merely introduced and barely digested, leaving the audience to delve into post-viewing discussion on their own, if they’re so moved.  I wasn’t totally moved to do so nor was I disappointed in it. I just left thinking about all that could’ve transpired and when that line of thinking replaces the majority of what you just saw, well, what you just saw was not a complete success.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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