by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
Opens November 1
There are numerous problems with Ender's Game, writer/director Gavin Hood's (Tsotsi) ambitious adaptation of Orson Scott Card's influential 1985 science-fiction favorite, not the least of which is its muddled moralistic center and waveringly hesitant point of view. But there are an almost equal number of merits, including strong performances from a generationally diverse cast (which includes relative newcomers like Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld as well as seasoned veterans like Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley) and a creatively imaginative visual design setting the film apart from the typical young-adult fantasy-adventure crowd. It is, in its own way, a movie at war with itself, and as such grows increasingly perplexing as things progress to their expectedly ambiguous (and, of course, sequel-hinting) conclusion.
Set in the near future, the story revolves around Ender Wiggin (Butterfield), the third son of a patriotic family who, according to Colonel Graff (Ford), has the making of a true master solider, a field general armies will follow into battle and whom enemies will be unsympathetically demolished by. You see, decades prior the planet was attacked by a hostile race of insect creatures known as the Formics, and while humanity was victorious, this violent, carnage-seeking menace is expected to return. It is believed by those in charge that future wars must be fought by children, their ability to adapt and understand, coupled with their ease with new technologies, making them the key to success. Finding the right leader to wage these battles is the chief mission of Graff and his aide, Major Gwen Anderson (Davis).
Elements of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Conrad, and even George Lucas abound, the film version of Card's novel ad-libbing freely from sci-fi royalty of every color and stripe. Hood mines this territory with confidence, never wavering in his stylistic choices keeping a somber, almost reverentially dour tone throughout no matter what it is that is happening to Ender at any given time. Even moments of joyful experimentation are colored through a tragically elegiac lens, and the full thrust of what exactly Graff is working so diligently to transform these children (all are in their mid- to early teens) into is never lost for a second.
At the same time, as a viewer this sadistic, almost fascist, close to sociopathic, form of nonstop militaristic brainwashing grows more uncomfortable as the film progresses. It is almost as if the filmmaker watched Paul Verhoeven's tongue-in-cheek, highly cynical, deeply satirical take on Heinlein's Starship Troopers and took it seriously, feeling he could up the ante by spelling out explicitly that the conversion of youngsters into warmongering monsters in the name of a nebulous 'greater good' is perfectly acceptable.
Whether or not it is, I am not one to say. Whether I find the watching of such a thing for almost two hours entertaining, however, is a different matter entirely. Five minutes of ethical reconsideration just doesn't feel enough to me in regard to the sheer volume, size, and scope of the potential genocide being discussed, debated, and maybe even acted out by the kids pulling the trigger. There is no light in this darkness, no sense of hope, and while showcasing the painful miseries of war isn't a bad thing - it's a very good lesson for kids to take note of, in my opinion - being beaten over the head with didactic ferocity isn't my personal cup of tea. It's never entirely clear if Hood is embracing this ideology or condemning it, the action-filled spectacle belittling any chance of an honest, intelligently complex discussion at virtually every turn.
But, even with so much it's culling from, even with so many similarly styled adventures having hit theaters over the past handful of years, Ender's Game looks incredible, Hood and his team offering up an impressive visual milieu that had me continually intrigued and fascinated. There are also some great bits of verbal wit and flair that caught me oftentimes by surprise, Butterfield underplaying his character beautifully while Ford chews scenery with the requisite grizzled crustiness. Steinfeld, thankfully better here than she was in the ill-fated Romeo & Juliet, is also solid, while a sublime Abigail Breslin pops up in a key role as Ender's older sister adding a bit of humanistic grey-area shading that the majority of the film sadly lacks.
I appreciate Hood's singularity of vision, and the fact he convinced a studio to give him this much money and freedom to craft this dour militaristic spectacle is rather astonishing. You get the feeling they were under the impression this could be some sort of interstellar Hunger Games, another young-adult franchise depicting the cost of war in a way that is still exciting and cheer-worthy while at the same time honestly assessing the painful, tragic sacrifices that revolution and conflict generate, regardless of the conflict's worthiness (or lack thereof).
I just wish there were some sort of balance here, some nuance of insight. Ender's Game looks incredible, and the cast does their collective best, but the taste left in my mouth after it came to an end was loathsome. Having never read Card's novel, I don't know if it is inherent to the book or not (or if the author's much-debated personal views regarding gender and sexuality factor into any of this, either), or is a facet of the adaptation only. Not that it should matter - a film needs to stand on its own, source material be damned, and suffice it to say Hood's take doesn't measure up, falling short as both social commentary and as entertainment, making it another 2013 disappointment destined to be forgotten before the year comes to its end.
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