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Friday, November 1, 2013

‘Ender’s Game’ Is A Fine Speaker For The Book

Ender’s Game:  4 out of 5

Ender:  Stay calm.  Shoot straight.  Here we go.

Ender’s Game, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel by Orson Scott Card, is one of my favorite books of all time.  The concept of a film adaptation has always been an intriguing one to me, but something I had long put off as ever actually happening.  These feelings came from a younger me, but I eventually realized that it was more or less inevitable and could only hope that it would not be completely screwed up.  Having now seen a live-action film based on the novel, I can say that I walked away feeling really positive about it.  Knowing that a film would have to drop certain aspects and have a different depiction of certain elements that have been in my mind for years, I was thrilled to see other parts of the film that absolutely thrilled me.  It is not without its flaws, but Ender’s Game is a big screen adaptation that I would be happy to salute.


The story takes place in a future where Earth has fought against alien invaders and barely won.  Since then, in preparation for the next invasion, the International Fleet now trains young children in an effort to find a new, gifted leader.  This possibility becomes a reality in the form of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield).  Ender is a strategically brilliant boy, who is selected by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to join Battle School, located on a space station orbiting Earth, and train in war games.  The film’s focus is set on Ender learning how to lead and learning how to deal with the toll these kinds of activities can have on a young mind.

Ender’s Game features a strong cast.  Along with Butterfield, the younger talent includes Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Petra, a female cadet with talent that closely rivals Ender’s; and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) as Valentine, Ender’s sister and one of the few people that is truly empathetic towards him.  The adult cast includes Viola Davis, as a Major with concern for the weight of stress, among other things, on Ender; and Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, a legendary war hero.


A main shortcoming in this film was always going to regard the characterization of important figures in this story.  This most notably stems from the role that Ender’s brother and sister play.  Suffice it to say that Ender’s Game is very much focused on Ender and stays clear of what is going on with earth, during Ender’s time at Battle School.  I can understand that decision and would be curious to know what the sequel plans would be, given the nature of the other books in this series.  That said, I am not one to necessarily judge a film as a part of a potential future franchise, as it should stand on its own.  In this regard, a key flaw of the film revolves around what I can only imagine is the jettison of around 20 minutes or so of footage that strengthens some of these supporting characters.  Even if that is not the case, while a long film may have made the pacing suffer, it does feel like the film’s story has been slimmed down, sacrificing some key character points in the process.

Moving past this, I was very surprised at how taken I was with both the spectacle of the film and the impact that certain elements of it had.  Seeing the visual of a zero-gravity training ground was pretty wonderful to behold and there was this great feeling of memories from the book that came flooding back to me, while I watched these sequences, among others.  The visuals, in general, are all quite good.  The accompanying sound design is a real highlight as well, almost making me not mind the rather generic score by Steve Jablonsky.  The film does enough to find a way to visually express an authentic level of reality, with regards to fictional space stations at a time where alien invasions have occurred, while also portraying a sense of uniqueness that separates this film from others.  Given my satisfaction with the portrayal of this world on a visual level, I was happy to take in the key story elements that this story needed to get across.  I only wish some of the deeper themes could have surfaced a bit stronger, but I can also see the difficulty of getting that across in a film that is already quite the challenge to put to screen.


Speaking as a fan of the book is one thing, but I do feel this is a film that largely works because it communicates its story well enough to not feel like nothing but fan service has been done.  Ender’s Game is very much a visual journey, as we watch Ender win various war games and battle scenarios based on a depiction of cunning and seeing him bark out orders to other cadets, so it certainly does not stand as a film that is just as effective in dialogue as it is in spectacle, but I also never found myself unclear about what was going on onscreen.  Director Gavin Hood, who also adapted the screenplay, has done a good job finding a way to balance the main drive of this film and show us a boy who takes his already gifted self and becomes something greater, which may or may not have adverse effects.

It also really comes down to the sense of energy and discovery that can be found in the film.  I can admit that I was slightly thrown at the beginning of the film, based on some stilted dialogue delivery, but that quickly went away as the film went on and expanded its scope.  While fitting for general audiences, Ender’s Game is a very satisfying kid’s adventure story that not only capitalizes on placing a lot the action around pre-teens/teenagers participating in these non-lethal war games, but does so without drawing much attention to the fact that it’s known as the International Fleet for a reason.  I was so happy to see a wide variety of kids in this movie and barely even making mention of that fact.  It helped that they all pretty much acted like kids, with one exception that is more or less a requirement of the story.

Ender:  Who would be in this army?
Graff:  Misfits like you.

 
As far as the acting goes, young Asa Butterfield makes a fine Ender.  There is a serious nature about him, but the film also allows for a certain level of fun to derive from his actions and dialogue, which keeps the film from feeling cold.  Given that a stern regard for following orders comes with the territory at boot camp-like training grounds, I do think the film finds the right way to balance the dramatic tone with the fun, adventurous aspect, and Butterfield’s performance works in that regard.  It helps that his chemistry with the other kids is fun to watch.  Steinfeld is a key role in this film as Petra and the relationship between her and Ender is a nice development, as are the ones with the other kids who become his key lieutenants.  Putting aside some of the rushed elements, keeping Ender likable and his relationships strong worked for this film.

Regarding the adults, Harrison Ford feels nicely placed here.  Graff is one letter away from “gruff” for a reason, but Ford is always a fun onscreen presence anyway, so when the film actually calls for his mood to lighten, he hits just the right beats for this film to play off of.  Only one thing is required of Viola Davis, making it no surprise that her character did not exist in the original novel, but given the purpose of her character, it helps that someone as talented as Davis has been placed in this role (although she pretty much served the same purpose in the underrated Beautiful Creatures from earlier this year).  And then there is Ben Kingsley with a face tattoo, serving as an odd way to reunite him with Butterfield (they were wonderful together in Hugo).  Kidding aside, not much is required from Kingsley either, but he brings the same kind of authority that Davis does and feels rightly placed overall.


Try as I must to share my enthusiasm for Ender’s Game, without emphasizing my love for the book, I really was surprised how much I enjoyed this film.  While it is by no means perfect, I held my expectations pretty low and was very satisfied with how it turned out.  Obviously changes would have to be made to the story and certain elements would be downplayed, but there is a great visual depiction of a sci-fi adventure story, with a focus on kids in a way that makes the film more intriguing to watch.  If Starship Troopers (which I love) is more or less the adult version of this film, then Ender’s Game is a solid watch for younger audiences.  It found a way to take on the difficult-to-film novel and attacked it head on.

Mazer Rackham:  He’s in command, there’s no stopping him now.





Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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