Friday, November 1, 2013

Bored Game: ENDER'S GAME

Ender’s Game recalls sci-fi movies of days gone by in which the future entails wearing matching jumpsuits, walking through glowing grey corridors, staring intently at touchscreens, and gravely contemplating strategy. Based on the novel of the same name by virulent homophobe (that’s putting it mildly and has little to no bearing on the content of the story, but needs to be said nonetheless) Orson Scott Card, the story takes place far in the future, some fifty years after aliens attacked our planet and were beaten back by man’s superior military might. Now young people are picked to enter Battle School, recruited and trained to eventually become military leaders who will take the battle back to the alien’s home world, where a preemptive strike will hopefully wipe out any chance of further conflict. There’s a tricky moral dilemma at the center of the narrative, but it’s underplayed here in a film that’s quickly obviously a self-serious Starship Troopers for dummies.

Our hero is one Ender Wiggins (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield), a boy we’re told early and often is the best there is. Scowling adults in military garb (Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Nonso Anozie) are constantly talking with each other, marveling at how remarkable a student Ender is, how promising his abilities are, and how much of their hope for mankind rests on his shoulders. Ender bids a tearful goodbye to his beloved sister (Abigail Breslin) and is shipped off to Battle School, an orbiting space station with a nifty zero-gravity bubble in the middle, where the bulk of the film is given over to watching his classmates and him train, take classes, exercise, and learn to behave like the child army they’re to become. He meets kids who like him (Hailee Steinfeld, Aramis Knight) and kids who don’t like him (Moises Arias, Conor Carroll). But, as we know, Ender’s far and away the best student. Why? I don’t know, but all the characters keep saying it.

Maybe it’s not so obvious on the page, but on screen it’s clear that Ender is a terrible protagonist. I don’t mean that as a value judgment. It’s merely an assessment of my level of interest. He’s a scrawny, stoic kid blandly marched up the level of command, told every step of the promotional ladder that he’s something like a genius. He knows it, too. He’s just so vacant that when he takes strong stances – mouthing off to Ford or threatening to quit the program – it’s hard to tell where his character stops and his plot function begins. It’s a movie that values telling us about characters over letting the characters be. You could assemble a remarkable cast, and indeed the filmmakers have, but they can’t do much with material that involves characters telling each other about each other. By the time Ben Kingsley shows up covered in Maori tattoos and speaking in an Australian accent, it’s no surprise that he’s nothing more than yet another plot point.

The adaptation is written and directed by South African director Gavin Hood who won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for his modest Tsotsi in 2005 before going on to take the blame for the mess that became X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (The less said about that the better.) He’s bad at drawing connections between these characters. It’s not easy to see why we should care about relationships and supporting characters beyond the fact that they’re our main characters, played by likable actors and cute kids, and have hung around the plot for long enough to generate some familiarity. The visuals around them, though, are nice enough. Hood keeps things sleek and steady, making it an atypical production that would rather you see the action than feel the chaos. It’s a good choice. Even as my mind drifted during long scenes of exposition and flatly stated themes, it’s a film that always looks good, like something I would’ve totally loved when I was a 12-year-old.

The film was co-financed by visual effects company Digital Domain, the people responsible for such wonderments of effects work as Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean, Apollo 13, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron Legacy, just to name a few. When Ender’s Game breaks away from the largely confined corridors of the Battle School, a place I took to thinking as Boring Space Hogwarts, the spaceships are generic sci-fi designs done up nicely. The climax, which involves hundreds of ships spiraling and swarming in deep space, is exciting and involving, which makes the dramas of kids and commanders in the dénouement resonate with a bit of a kick. Suddenly there’s meaning, and a real filmic charge, out of something we’ve seen acted out instead of having simply been told. That the story has indistinct politics and a fuzzy point of view allows the story to have its whiz-bang lightshow climax and make us feel bad about it too. Would that the whole film were as exciting as its final moments. 

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