Sunday, November 03, 2013

Movie Review: Ender's Game

Note: This is strictly a review of the movie. If you're interested in comments about any controversy surrounding the movie, you'll have to read elsewhere. 

So fans of the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card have been waiting for a movie version of the book to come out for years. Even the author has been impatient. The last time this discussion was in play, they were considering Jake Lloyd (the little bowl-cut runt who played ten-year-old Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I). I for one think this current iteration was worth the wait. This is an amazing science fiction film. Heck, it's just an amazing movie!

General concept: It's the future, 50 years after Earth was attacked by a race of insect-like creatures from another star system. The aliens--Formics--were beaten by the actions of one leader, Mazer Rackham. Since that time, Earth has been preparing to fight back against the Formics and has, if you can swallow the premise, been training an army of children ages 10 to 16 to lead the charge. At the center of this process is a series of simulated laser battles in a zero-gravity arena in orbit above Earth. The people in charge of this army, such as the character Graff (played pitch-perfectly by Harrison Ford), go to great lengths to observe special children whom they believe can beat the other kids in the arena. A lot of this involves subjecting the would-be "leaders" to some of the worst bullying possible.

Into this world is born Andrew Wiggin, nicknamed "Ender," who is born as an unprecedented "third" child because his other two siblings were so brilliant. The reason for needing permission for the third child are now lost to me because it's been over 20 years since I read the Nebula- and Hugo Award-winning book. As the "game" gets tougher and tougher, so too do the stakes for Ender, especially as the kids move further into space. I won't go any further into the plot for fear of giving away spoilers.

What impressed me most about this film is how well it captured the story, spirit, and essence of a well-written book. The primary elements are there, from Ender's sadistic brother Peter and empathetic sister Valentine to the manipulative Graff to Ender's group of peers, who are alternately hostile or respectful, depending on what they learn from him. The special effects are top-notch, as one would expect for a SF film made today. The acting is not too overdone--the stoic and harsh Ford is, much to my surprise, the biggest scenery chewer in the cast, though Ben Kingsley as a Maori runs a close second. The kid they got to play Ender, Asa Butterfield, gets Ender right as well, at so far as I remember him: simultaneously sensitive and dangerous when pushed to the edge. The action moves along a bit too quickly in places, but it doesn't sacrifice story cohesion. In fact, given that the film clocks in at a brisk 114 minutes, they probably could have taken a few extra minutes here and there to better cement some of the characters and their relationships.

There are a few sequels to Ender's Game, and the movie does leave a bit of an opening for any of those sequels to happen. I enjoyed Speaker for the Dead as well as the third book, Xenocide. Card has also written two or three other "Ender" books, which I believe are near-term sequels set in the same universe and concern other characters from the novels. Those didn't attract my attention quite as much, but Speaker won also won the Hugo and Nebula Awards and so is worth remaking.

Ender's Game gives me hope that Hollywood can stop making dreadful derivative science fiction flops and will start mining the tremendous riches of the best the genre has to offer. The techniques of filmmaking have at last caught up with some of these classics, it only remains for good directors to hire good actors and designers to render them faithfully on the screen. Ender's Game has received that treatment. Let's hope others will follow.

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