Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: Ender's Game (Adam Riske's Take)

by Adam Riske
I love being wrong. Having no history with the book Ender’s Game, I went into the movie with a blank slate and low expectations brought on by the movie’s garbage trailer. It looked like another one of those nonsense “chosen one” movies for kids. But I am here to say Ender’s Game is another Jack Reacher, a movie far better than the ads would leave you to believe. I liked Ender’s Game. At times I liked it a lot.

Ender’s Game is not a complete success, but I admire its balls. That's a weird thing to say, but I can’t think of another way of saying it. This movie is thumbing its nose at several things including the military’s potential ability to hive evil group-think behavior, children who are deemed “gifted” before they’ve done anything and, most importantly video game culture. I suspect kids going into the movie, who are unaware of the book’s trajectory, will find themselves in the uncomfortable position that many teens and college-age adults found themselves in during Spring Breakers. I never thought I’d say that about Ender’s Game, but it’s asking big questions of its young target audience with the goal of making them uncomfortable. For that I commend the movie (or maybe more specifically, the story from the book; I’ll give credit to the movie because I haven’t read the book and can only speak to what I have seen on screen). The movie works.
The plot in brief: An alien race called the Formics once attacked Earth, nearly annihilating the human race. Since being defeated, the Formics have been dormant for years but Earth is expecting a counter-attack. In preparation for probable future war, Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) has led the training of the best child prodigies from Earth, fostering teams of children who are experts in military strategy. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the brightest of the bunch and quickly rises through the ranks to become the most elite of the soldiers due to his intelligence and emotional makeup. Through many games and drills, Ender is mentored to lead the attack against the Formics with the fate of Earth at stake.
One aspect of Ender’s Game that I liked is that it doesn’t feel like a big movie. Even though it has many special effects and battle sequences, the heart of the movie is in the relationships and the character-driven drama. The movie spends a lot of time on the adult-child relationships and the dangers involved in not questioning authority when your gut tells you something is wrong. It’s sort of a brilliant casting choice to have Harrison Ford, who is pretty engaged and good here, play Col. Graff. Putting Ford in a science fiction space opera immediately puts you in the position of thinking of him as an older Han Solo (a rogue but a friend), which allows for some surprising developments for his character. On top of his entertaining performance in 42 earlier this year, Ford is having a strong 2013.

The rest of the performances are inconsistent. Viola Davis plays one of Ford’s colleagues, but she is wasted. Ben Kingsley also doesn’t have much to do and turns up for only the last 30 minutes. Most of the screen time is given to child actors who are actually pretty bad, with school play line readings and zero screen presence (the exception being maybe Hailee Steinfeld from the True Grit remake). The other main performance besides Ford is Asa Butterfield as Ender. Butterfield suffers the fate of most of his child co-stars, as he’s not the most interesting of actors. However, he is well-cast in this movie since Ender is meant to be sort of a meek wallflower that gets by on his calculating nature and his intelligence. He seems like a kid that asserts his aggression by playing a lot of violent video games and that is right for the character. He’s someone that is good at heart but with the capacity to be Michael Corleone in his efficiency and capacity for wrongdoing.

The direction by Gavin Hood (who also wrote the script) is solid, with the movie moving at a quick pace and the somewhat exciting action sequences always making spatial sense. I also thought the production design was interesting to look at, particularly a zero-gravity training chamber where the child soldiers conduct war games while floating in air and laser tagging each other. This is a step up for Hood from his last tentpole movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The real reason that I’m recommending Ender’s Game is for its bold message. To avoid spoilers, I will not go into detail, but the climax is a surprise and rightly critical of the dangers of group-think and chain of command taking precedence over empathy and individual knowledge of right and wrong. The movie is also observant that children are susceptible to manipulation, especially when trying to please their “superiors” who regularly egg them on with claims that they’re special. I also liked how the movie is making a point about the consequences of violence that children often forget when immersed in a virtual reality. Lives seem expendable in order to win and humanity and collateral damage is forgotten. It’s all very strong material, almost weakened by a peculiar closing five minutes that rushes way too much new information and tries to make a particular character more sympathetic when we should be still damning of their actions. The redemption rings false and contrived to allow for further adventures in what should be a stand-alone story.

Ender’s Game was a real surprise. It's a movie that turns the “chosen one” trope on its head and has many worthwhile things to say to a target audience that I hope will ask their parents questions as they leave the theater. While it’s not a science fiction classic (like many would claim the book of being), the film adaptation of Ender’s Game is the type of intelligent science fiction that audiences should have the opportunity to see more often.


  1. I just don't know if I can get past my distaste for Orson Scott Card enough to ever spend money on a movie he's involved with. His hateful, homophobic rhetoric has soured me so much on his work (a la Mel Gibson) that I just don't want to support him. It's odd to me that you say the movie questions groupthink, as he personally trades almost exclusively in hateful groupthink. I may be being unfair, but my only brother is a gay man and a good man, and knowing that Card spews hatred against people like my brother makes me want to give any of his work a rather wide berth.

    What do you (and by you I mean anybody reading this) think about that sort of thing? How much does a creator's personal politics or attitude influence your approach to his or her work?

    1. Sorry, I had started my reply before your comment was there and then came back to it - I think that OSC is a piece of shit and though I don't like the idea of supporting him in any way, I just feel there are too many other artists involved who don't deserve to be punished by people boycotting this movie just because of that one piece of shit. I'm sure behind just about every movie there's at least one racist, sexist and/or homophobic asshole (Michael Bay?), so if you're going to start not watching stuff based on not liking the politics/philosophy of an individual involved, you probably won't be left with much to watch.

      Anyway, that's just my opinion and the reason I would not participate in a general boycott of Ender's Game, I can at least understand, if not agree with, why you would.

    2. You make a really good point there, Sol. I'm torn because I don't want to close myself off to movies because of things that have nothing to do with the movie itself. At the same time, I hate the thought of someone like Card using my money to propagate his odious hate-speech. On the third hand (I'm Judd Nelson in The Dark Backward, I guess) I'm a Jewish guy who paid to see The Passion of the Christ in a theater so three hands notwithstanding I don't really have a leg to stand on if I'm ok supporting one bigot over another. You're right though, there's certainly much more than just one person involved in the making of a movie.

    3. I'd just skip it if you're on the fence for personal reasons. It's not THAT GOOD :-)

  2. You raise a good point and an important one. I can only speak for what I got out of the movie but I found it to be critical of group-think. Perhaps the filmmakers, knowing the controversy around the author, tinkered with the message of the book somewhat. I can't say for sure. In the case of watching Enders Game, I did not have the politics of the author in my mind at all, mainly because I have no history with the book. I just watched it as a movie that came out this weekend. Kind of like how I watched After Earth and didn't think about Scientology.

    For me, a creator's personal politics can factor into my assessment of their work but I take it on a case by case basis. I didn't find any homosexual text or subtext in Enders Game (the movie) so this case didn't call attention to itself. Nor did Mel Gibson being in Machete Kills make me think of his anti-semetic tirades (and I am a Jewish man). I thought about him being an icky person but that was about it.

  3. Good review Adam, I have read the book and a number of the sequels and thought they were great (the first in particular) but had fairly low expectations for the movie as I was getting a "for teens" vibe from it, which I would argue the book was not. Glad to hear it's worth a watch, even if it does make you a homophobe for watching it! Sorry, it looks like you may have purposefully avoided any mention of that nonsense, but I had to bring it up - I'd like to think there aren't any F-Heads who would punish the 100s of people who worked on this movie because the original author is an asshole, so hopefully it's a non-issue here!