ENDER'S GAME-- 4 STARS
Throughout the year, this site and its movie reviews have been tracking the banner year 2013 has hoped to be for science fiction cinema. It's been a two-headed monster between original science fiction like Oblivion, Upside Down, After Earth, Elysium, Gravity, Pacific Rim, and Europa Report and films based on previously-written material like The Host, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, World War Z, Riddick, and the upcoming November big hitters Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. If we were measuring the tale-of-the-tape between those two science fiction factions, one would have to say that name recognition has been winning, especially with box office receipts. Outside of Gravity's massive and recent success, superheroes and brand name franchises stemming from established science fiction sources are showing their dominance over original ideas, against the hopes of many who love a good new idea. The trend shows no signs of stopping, which is why you will soon see I, Frankenstein, a Robocop remake, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Divergent, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a Godzilla remake, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Resident Evil 6, and one more Hunger Games chapter appearing between now and next November. During that same span, the one notable original science fiction offering is Jupiter Ascending from the Wachowski siblings of Cloud Atlas and The Matrix fame. That's twelve against one. The moral might just read "be published or face an uphill battle."
With that in mind, there's something to be said for having a proven piece of work on which to base a film. Strong work equals strong results, which is the catalyst to examine Ender's Game, the latest 2013 science fiction blockbuster-to-be. Ender's Game is based on one of the more illustrious pieces of science fiction written in the last half century. Originating as a 1977 short story, author Orson Scott Card's 1985 Cold War-era and Hugo Award-winning military science fiction novel has long been a required reading staple of high school literature classes, college courses, and even our own U.S. Marine Corps. X-Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood emerged as the man to get it to the big screen and it arrives with gusto. Piggy-backing off of the runaway success of the teen-centered Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games franchises, Ender's Game is a exciting and very worthy new series to grab onto. Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate Films, which already housed Twilight and The Hunger Games, has added yet another shiny flagship and bonafide money-maker to its stable. Personally, I think this is better than The Hunger Games, at least as a first film of a series.
Ender's Game takes place in the 22nd century where an insectoid alien race known as the Formics decimated Earth's combined military defenses in a dramatic attack that occurred fifty years ago in 2086. The heroics of one fighter pilot, Mazer Rackham, gave Earth a costly, but effective victory that staved off invasion. The joint efforts of the International Fleet have spent those fifty years since preparing for the impending Formic counterattack. It's come to the point where the top military leaders have turned to training the brightest young children as future combat leaders.
The foremost officer of the training schools, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees future greatness in Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield of Hugo), a loner third sibling outside of the two-child mandate of the future. His violent older brother Peter failed Battle School training, but Ender's tactical mind to soundly defeat his bullies earns him a place to train as future commander. He is pulled from his Earth school and entered into a rigorous military training program at an enormous space station orbiting the planet. Here, Ender is put through the calculated mental and physical training challenges to build a team, become a leader, and emerge as the tactician necessary for war against the Formics.
Colonel Graff pushes Ender hard, much to the reservation of Major Anderson (multiple Oscar nominee Viola Davis of The Help), the psychology officer of the training facility, who questions whether teens like Ender can handle the war-like mentality they are being thrust towards. While Ender misses a bit of home, especially his sympathetic big sister Valentine (Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin), the wargames and battle simulations are nonstop. Ender shows his talent and moves up the ranks quickly, befriending teammates like Petra Arkanian (True Grit's Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld) and even a few of his rivals along the way. His final challenges come from command training from Mazer Rackham himself (Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley) deeper into space at an outpost station near the Formic's home planet.
The film does an excellent job giving us a lead character to root for that isn't a sparkly wimpy vampire or whiny Luke Skywalker. Asa Butterfield, so good in Martin Scorsese's Hugo two years ago, commands the screen as the burgeoning leader-in-the-making. The film does its best from the source novel to occupy Ender's psyche, between the jubilation of success to the hard decisions of a soldier. The young actor comports himself very well, in and out of action, and can stand toe-to-toe onscreen with Harrison Ford. Between 42 and Ender's Game this year, Ford continues to filter his gruff persona into shrewdly effective leadership roles that make the most of his charismatic weight.
Ender's Game, for the most part, plays like one of the those training montages from other films only stretched out for long term progression. Rather than a cinematic fast-forward device, the value is Ender's journey and ascension from the trials and tribulations of that training. That's the meat of this story, where actions and consequences have their echoes into future challenges. Within that long training, the film dazzles with its accomplished use of 3D special effects and stunt work. This is worth the bump in ticket price for a movie that was shot with half the budget of other fancier movies.
Long thought to be "unfilmmable" with its wondrous science fiction content (something that was also thought last year of Yann Martel's existential Life of Pi before director Ang Lee nailed it), Orson Scott Card fiercely held off on selling the novel's film rights for two decades. Over the years, Card attempted to adapt his own work into a viable screenplay six times before South African director Gavin Hood came into the picture. He wrote his own treatment and got Card's seal of approval. Card himself stayed on as a co-producer and calls the final product "damn good." He's pretty spot on with his opinion. This film rocks and rocks often.
Ender's Game, like every other popular novel turned into a film, is going to be judged for its vision and shortcomings compared to its source material by picky die-hard fans. It's a shame because the film is often very compelling and thrilling as a futuristic adventure with a keen military backbone. Yes, much of the Cold War-ish political overtones of Earth's outside stance towards the military actions of International Fleet and the influential roles of Ender's siblings are greatly reduced, but that's the price of an impossible movie adaptation. As implored on this blog before and now automatically repeated, please separate the two mediums because no novel fits into a two-hour film and the book will always be better than the movie.
This critic, as always, didn't read the book, so analysis on that aspect of Ender's Game is going to have to be found elsewhere. From what I can tell, the essence of Card's novel is here, with the emphasis on Ender, the burden of leadership, and dire focus of his trainers and superiors. This film falls closer to The Hunger Games than to World War Z when it comes to covering and honoring the source material. You dual book readers and moviegoers out there will get that analogy when you see World War Z. As a movie, Ender's Game works just fine and earns its stripes. This first franchise starter holds the promise of more to come and is a perfect launching point for new fans, both for cinematic offerings and for the connected literature (of which there are 20 more novels).
LESSON #1: THE INHERENT ADVANTAGES OF CHILDREN OVER ADULTS-- Before we laugh at the science fiction context of sinking resources into training children as admirals the way we laugh at the hubris of building robots to beat up aliens in Pacific Rim, consider the actual strengths of teenagers. Early on in the film, Colonel Graff outlines how children's minds are more apt to taking risks, more open to analytical thinking, and more devoid of connection and emotion that get in the way of those risks and that thinking. He's kind of right. Just look at the video game kids of today that lay waste to the military operatives of Call of Duty and Halo and the street thugs of Grand Theft Auto and Batman: Arkham City for hours on end with little remorse and a high level of problem-solving.
LESSON #2: THE CHALLENGES TO BECOMING A LEADER-- As aforementioned, the training process we observe for Ender's climb to leadership is extensive in this film compared to the montages of other movies. We see the hard process of winning over rivals in a competitive atmosphere where everyone wants to be the leader. Ender's smarts, at first, rub students the wrong way before they pay off and prove his worth. At the same time, through Graff's molding as the training continues, Ender learns the burden of leadership knowing that sacrifice of himself and those in his charge are necessary in balancing his risk and strategy to succeed.
LESSON #3: THE WAY YOU WIN THE GAME OR FIGHT MATTERS-- The character trait about Ender that grabs Graff's attention in the first place is how he handled bullies. Ender, though outmatched, made sure to win the fight with his superior tactics to know his opponent inside and out. To go a step further, he also sought to win the fight decisively enough to prevent future retaliations from happening. That's the clincher. That crucial mentality to win that completely is what Graff needs. The tricky part becomes at what point that level of victory makes you brutal, overaggressive, or the warmonger rather than a hero or a winner.