Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Ender's Game": the two-paragraph review

[CAUTION: Spoilers!]

"Ender's Game" is a science-fiction adventure starring a very shrimpy, underfed Asa Butterfield as Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a young genius recruit to the International Fleet's Battle School, where Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford in crusty mode) has high hopes that Ender will prove to be the planet's savior against the Formics—also known, rather vulgarly, as the Buggers. Ender's co-trainees include Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy), Dink (Khylin Rhambo, quite possibly the coolest name in the world), and Bean (Aramis Knight—the other coolest name). Also participating in the war games are Viola Davis as Andrews, the movie's conscience; and Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, the tattooed, part-Maori strategic genius who beat back the first alien invasion. The movie takes us through Ender's training in Battle School (one imposing-yet-kind drill instructor, Nonso Anozie's Sergeant Dap, makes a huge impression), his promotion to Command School, and his final fight against the Formics in a battle that incinerates their home planet. The punchline of the story is that Ender's final "game" isn't a combat simulation: it's the real thing, but he doesn't know this until after he's committed his genocide, at which point he reverts to being a child and becomes remorseful about what he has done.

There are crucial ways in which the film is both faithful to and unfaithful to the novel. (The movie was adapted for the screen by author Orson Scott Card himself, then finalized by Gavin Hood, who also directed.) As in the book, the movie shows that Ender, who has suffered both serious abuse at the hands of his older brother and prejudice from his peers for being an outsider and a third-born child, is a ruthless fighter whose exploits reveal the strategic way in which he thinks. For example, Ender mercilessly beats up a bully as a way to prevent future altercations (in the book, Ender accidentally kills that boy, as well as one or two others). He's the perfect blend of violence and calculation. By contrast, the movie doesn't do a very good job of depicting Ender's brilliance during training; if anything, the film is more of a Cliff's Notes summary of major events in the book, with little attempt to explore the book's deeper issues. The movie's special effects, while competently rendered, left me a bit cold: I've seen vicious mechanical swarms before in films like "The Matrix Revolutions" and even "Return of the Jedi." I've also seen spaceships flying in overly rigid, geometric formations before: remember "The Last Starfighter"? The battle scenes in "Ender's Game" feature plenty of activity, but no real intensity. Ender's sad dialogue with the last remaining queen-in-an-egg is compacted into a nearly wordless exchange with an adult queen, and the entire Demosthenes/Locke subplot (i.e., Ender's siblings playing political games on the Internet in an effort to place Peter in a position of power) is left out. All in all, the movie felt hasty and superficial. It was well-acted, with an earnest and competent cast, but it was bereft of substance.

ADDENDUM: my review of the novel Ender's Game is here.


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