Friday, November 15, 2013

"Ender's Game" a Close Win

There are two men out there named Orson Scott Card. One is the beloved author whose novels managed to win both major US prizes for science fiction (the Hugo and the Nebula) in two consecutive years, making him the only man to do so. His singular novel, Ender's Game, is practically required reading, having become so well-known since its release in 1985. The book surprisingly predicted many modern developments, from drone warfare to the internet to tablet computers like the iPad you're reading this on. In short, Card is one of the most prolific Sci-fi authors, right up there with Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. The OTHER Orson Scott Card is the homophobic individual living in Greensboro, North Carolina, whose well-known opposition to same sex marriage has caused a ton of backlash as groups sought to boycott Ender's Game, the film based on his seminal work. Even film distributor Lionsgate distanced themselves as much as they could from this man, fearing the fallout over the controversy for their $110 million product. Do either of these men leave a lasting mark on what has actually landed in theaters?
Battle School can't even splurge on some camouflage sleepwear?
In 2086, an invasion by the alien species known as the Formics practically decimates the planet Earth. The heroics of our military was just enough to drive them off, but the government fears an even stronger return. Determined to adapt their strategies and discover the next great commander, they assemble the best known minds on the planet in a space station designated "Battle School" under the command of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the smartest of the bunch, a loner who constantly finds himself bullied by those larger than him, but who also possesses a keen strategic mind that puts everyone - especially those who doubt him - to shame. As Ender rises through the ranks and gains friends and allies, he awaits his greatest challenge; taking the fight to the Formics and end the threat to Earth once and for all.
The only reason he's wearing yellow is that it makes him a brighter target.
For all the fuss about supporting Card's story, he really doesn't have all that much to do with the production of the movie itself. Yes, he is listed as a "producer", but in this case that's really an honorific due to his providing the source material. Instead, the screenplay is penned by director Gavin Hood, who rebounds nicely from the cringe-worthy disaster that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He takes the book and adapts the tale nicely, spreading the major events and many minor ones nicely over the course of a two-hour feature. Given almost total control over the start of this potential franchise, Hood proves his mettle in both character development (well, mostly, as we'll see later) and action, with the film's special effects being among the best in theaters this year (and I saw this on an IMAX screen, so I would have noticed the imperfections). While certainly not living up to the visual achievements of Gravity, Hood's rendition of outer space is still astounding, and his set pieces are all well-designed and beautiful to the discerning eye. A great SFX team was put together here, and under Hood's direction they succeed in building this futuristic universe and replicating Card's vision.
Explosions in space are amazing!
Hood is more than ably assisted by a talented cast, anchored especially by its younger actors. Butterfield hasn't been seen since 2011's excellent Hugo, and here he shows off another side to his acting ability. While written perhaps a tad blandly, the young performer quickly turns Ender Wiggin into someone the audience can easily root for, and keeps that momentum going throughout the film. You really get a feel for the extremes with the character, as Ender tries to balance his duties as the hero of humanity with the neuroses and desires that come from being a kid. Also excellent are Hailee Steinfeld, who steals many a scene as Ender's friend and compatriot Petra, and Abigail Breslin, who has a few appearances as our protagonist's Earth-bound sister. The veterans also get to show off a bit, as both Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis do their jobs as supporting characters well. Only Harrison Ford feels forced, his gruff military man a clear phone-in and ultimately a disappointment after his impressive turn in 42.
Ford: still flying Solo. 
While Ender's Game is definitely a solid movie, it does have a few wrinkles that never quite even out. Despite Hood's best efforts, the story feels rushed, as Ender must navigate nearly a dozen major plot points within the little time given. This means that many minor characters are severely underdeveloped, and their burgeoning relationships to the film's hero are a bit sketchy at best. A bit more padding would have sufficed in filling some of the more egregious holes, but considering how hard it is for parents to keep their kids still, it's understandable that the studio wouldn't have wanted to tack on an additional twenty minutes where it wasn't completely necessary. More of a letdown is the distinct lack of 3D offerings. I know, I'm the guy who usually criticizes 3D as gimmicky, especially when it's poorly implemented. But the the special effects here were MADE for 3D conversion, the gorgeous space scenes and complex indoor battlefields practically popping out of the screen already. The lack of this tech is questionable for a few reasons, mainly because it would seem natural for the genre but also because 3D will often help sell your movie to overseas markets. After all, Paramount delayed GI Joe: Retaliation for nearly nine months when they realized how much of a financial bump 3D conversion would get them across the world. Why did Lionsgate fail to make this happen? Especially with a big-budget sci-fi epic that has had more than its share of problems these days?
Welcome to Battle School. You'll never learn most of their names.
So should you overcome your hatred of that second Orson Scott Card and see this movie on the big screen? Well, yeah. It ought to be noted that Card is not making a cent off of the box office draw; he was paid a sum for an early draft of the screenplay (that was later scrapped), but other than that he's making no money off of this adaptation of his work. So if you decide to get out the movies and check this out, don't worry; you are in no way supporting him financially. More importantly, Ender's Game is a fun, smart, and excitingly epic tale that takes you a galaxy away and deep into one of science fiction's most well-known tales. Yes, there's other fantastical fare out there right now in Thor, but if you've already seen that Marvel production and are excitedly awaiting next week's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, then this is another film you should add to your must-watch list.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

I have to admit, the reason I haven't and will not see "Ender's Game" is because of Orson Scott Card. In my case it's not my hatred of anyone, it's just that I don't like to support people/companies that do/say things that stem from a hatred or ignorance. I won't get gasoline from BP because of their environmental ignorance, I won't patronage Chick Filet because of their ignorant (perhaps based in hatred) stance on people who have no effect in they lives, etc… but that's my choice, and frankly it's a choice easily made because of the many choices that are hitting our theater's right now. (and I'm a fan of Harrison Ford's films)
This being the fall/winter movie season, choosing to see a film to go to tomorrow night is easy when I can opt for a "Kill My Darlings" for example over yet another sic-fi story (which I've probably seen or read already in my lifetime, having read a TON of comics and books over the years).
And I figure I can save the money I'd spend on EG and see the IMAX version of "Catching Fire" this week.