Friday, November 1, 2013

Ender's Game: Well played

Ender's Game (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.1.13

Celebrated sci-fi author Orson Scott Card was 26 when his first work, a novella titled “Ender’s Game,” was published in the August 1977 issue of Analog. In 1985, with much more ambitious plans for that tale’s young protagonist — and with the security of a rapidly blossoming literary career — Card expanded his debut effort into a novel that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

While Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) watches warily, the thuggish Bonzo (Moises Arias) angrily
warns Ender (Asa Butterfield) to stay out of his way. But Ender isn't one to remain on
the sidelines, which Petra senses immediately; things are destined to get quite ugly
between these two boys.
Today, the so-called “Ender series” encompasses — are you sitting down? — a dozen novels, a dozen short stories and roughly four dozen comic books (some adapting existing novels, some with entirely new material).

Obviously, fans can’t get enough.

More significantly, for our purposes, those same fans — and the general public — will thoroughly enjoy director/scripter Gavin Hood’s big-screen adaptation of the novel that started it all.

The South African-born filmmaker is an impressively shrewd choice for this material, having burst onto the scene with 2005’s Tsotsi, which traces a week in the life of a young Johannesburg street thug who wrestles with his conscience after finding a baby in the back seat of a car he steals. The grim drama won that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and Hood — a USC film school grad — went on to an eclectic career as a director, writer and actor.

Ender’s Game also focuses strongly on the warring conscience of a boy, while contemplating several big-ticket philosophical issues that include state-sanctioned child abuse, planetary resource depletion and the novel’s most controversial theme: the notion of meeting a bully’s brutality with a savage response designed to prevent ALL subsequent attacks.

The setting is a futuristic Earth, decades after our planet just barely repelled an invasion by an insectoid alien race dubbed the “Formics.” Expecting that these swarming monstrosities have returned to their home world in order to mount an even larger assault fleet, Earth’s united military force has pinned its hopes on a multi-national “Battle School” designed to train our best and brightest military tacticians:

Carefully selected children.

Young minds are much more agile and adaptable; we know this in our own real world. It therefore stands to reason that young minds weaned on a diet of strategy-laced computer games might be nurtured into becoming the next Patton, Napoleon or Hannibal.

(Needless to say, this rather disturbing notion — and the possibility that modern nations might be acting on it — is a helluva lot more timely today, than it was back in 1977. Among his many other talents, Card deserves credit for scary prescience.)

We meet young Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) during his early days at Battle School, where he has demonstrated a flair for besting older classmates in computer tablet battles. This does not make Ender popular with some of his more thuggish peers, although it does bring him to the attention of Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), always on the lookout for promising students.

Unfortunately, this focus makes Ender even more of a target, leading to a confrontation with one of the school bullies. Ender attempts to talk his way out of the beatdown; when that fails, he surprises everybody by lashing out viciously enough to hospitalize his older, taller tormentor.

Naturally, that makes Ender even more interesting to Graff.

But the aftermath, recognizing what he has done, troubles Ender deeply. Allowed a brief visit home, believing he has been washed out of the program, Ender takes solace from his older sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), who knows full well what he’s going through, having once been a Battle School student herself. (Valentine’s saga is covered elsewhere in Card’s canon.)

In great contrast, Ender’s sociopathic older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) delights in this apparent failure; indeed, Peter comes close to killing Ender ... which reveals precisely how the younger boy has learned to deal with bullies. Peter, as well, once was a Battle School student; he was expelled because of his uncontrolled violent rages.

Ender’s visible, guilt-ridden remorse has been the final test; it demonstrates the boy’s ability to empathize with an opponent, thus better understanding him. Graff swoops him back into the program, where Ender joins other children in a spaceflight to a huge orbiting military station designed primarily around its huge, zero-gravity “battle room.”

The children are divided into squadrons, with opposing teams meeting in the obstacle-laden battle room for a futuristic blend of paintball and quidditch. The hand-held “weapons” are paralyzers that temporarily freeze an opponent’s limb or torso; points are given for various anatomical hits, but a team wins immediately if able to maneuver one player through the enemy’s “goal.”

Ender quickly excels at this game, displaying a facility for unorthodox strategies that cleverly — but ruthlessly — sacrifice other squad members in order to achieve that ultimate victory. This earns him the growing respect of new friends Bean (Aramis Knight) and Alai (Suraj Partha), while isolating him further from jealous tyrants such as Bonzo (Moises Arias), leader of the Salamander squad.

Ender’s effort to stand up to the cruel Bonzo has an upside: the growing respect of Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), also a member of the Salamanders.

The battle room games continue, while — behind the scenes, unknown to the students — Graff nervously eyes a deep-space monitor that counts down the anticipated return of the Formic invaders.

Butterfield is perfect in the title role, his sallow complexion, sunken eyes and haunted gaze every inch the angst-ridden lad that Card created on the page. The young actor made a startlingly mature debut in 2008’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and more recently touched our hearts as the title character in 2011’s Hugo. Butterfield is a richly expressive performer, and here he displays just the right blend of stubborn, defiant superiority and aching despair.

Ford delivers an equally intriguing performance, on the one hand making Graff a gruff, seasoned proponent of the “tough love” school: the sort of cheerfully grumpy bearing we’ve come to expect from the veteran actor. But Graff also has another side that isn’t nearly as attractive, and Ford is equally persuasive when this hardened commander reveals his increasingly desperate allegiance to the belief that the end justifies any means ... even those that irreparably damage his prize pupils.

Too much is at stake to behave otherwise.

Davis is the yin to Graff’s yang; Anderson is a much more compassionate psychologist who worries deeply about what is being done to these impressionable young minds. She’s also greatly concerned about the degree to which Ender’s downtime activity — a solo, puzzle-laden computer challenge — has been “invaded” by images of his sister and Formic opponents. Davis’ increasingly defiant objections to Graff’s methods, however, become a bit too shrill: not the best showcase for an actress better known for the graceful subtlety of her performances.

Steinfeld, still coasting on her Oscar-nominated work in the 2010 remake of True Grit, is plucky and sympathetic as Petra, Ender’s staunchest ally. That said, her performance shows little depth; she doesn’t dig deep into her role, the way Butterfield so thoroughly inhabits Ender.

In fairness, Hood’s script more correctly deserves the blame for this. In the filmmaker’s desire to focus on the bond between Ender and Valentine — thus granting Breslin a better showcase for her acting chops — he short-shrifts Petra, Bean and Alai, all of whom play a much larger, and more emotionally crucial, role in Card’s novel.

It’s not necessarily a bad artistic choice on Hood’s part; he obviously struggled to compress the massive tapestry of Card’s novel into a 114-minute film. But those who vividly remember the book's handling of Petra, Bean and Alai are apt to be somewhat disappointed here.

A heavily tattooed Ben Kingsley is striking as the half-Maori instructor who takes over when Ender graduates to Command School, and Nonso Anozie makes a strong impression in his brief role as a boot camp-style sergeant. Arias, as well, ensures that we’ll not soon forget the petulantly vicious Bonzo: quite a switch from the goofy free spirit this young actor played earlier this year, in The Kings of Summer.

Characters and performances aside, however, every fan of this novel will want to know how well the battle room skirmishes have been visualized. The news is good: Visual effects supervisor and his company, Digital Domain, have done a slick job. The zero-gravity environment is cleverly, persuasively constructed, and several of Ender’s best campaigns — most notably his squad’s odds-against battle with two opposing teams — leap faithfully off the page.

On the other hand, some quieter scenes — such as Harrison Ford’s zero-g “swim” within a spaceship cabin — suffer slightly when compared to the far superior (and very recent) work in Gravity.

Hood builds his film to an exciting, breathtaking finale, although an epilogue of sorts — also faithful to Card’s novel — gets too philosophically preachy for my taste, and even works against what we’ve seen to this point. Card could better establish the groundwork for this unexpected twist; Hood's film, of necessity short-changing such back-story, sends viewers out on a note that is intended to be upbeat, but instead feels dour and anticlimactic (while clearly setting up a potential sequel).

Still, the ride is crisp, energetic and well played up to that point. Ender’s Game also raises intriguing questions, as is intended; this is thoughtful sci-fi, designed to encourage debate while entertaining. It succeeds on both counts.

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