Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ender’s Game (2013) – Review

Review: Ender’s Game is a perfectly acceptable young adult sci-fi action/drama. The film is about a teen, Ender Wiggin, who is being trained to lead the Earth’s Space fleet in an assault on an alien enemy that almost conquered Earth thirty years earlier. While Ender is being groomed for command by Colonel Graff, he must still overcome multiple obstacles to prove that he is indeed ready to lead. In this seemingly utopian (authoritarian governed) future, children are determined to be the Earth’s best hope at survival as their minds have a higher aptitude for taking on complex strategic problems (and they can be controlled more easily by propaganda, weeding out compassion).

Ender’s Game has a lot of interesting ideas: the morality of the use of child soldiers, compassion for the enemy, the social construct of a state governed by an authoritarian government, how propaganda is used to incite emotion and action within people, and many others. However, writer-director Gavin Hood’s film feels rather restrained. These elements are present, as they are in Orson Scott Card’s novel (for which the film is based), but here they are sort of glossed over and pushed to the shadows. The film is far less dark than it probably could have been tonally. In many ways, it reeks of a Hollywoodized makeover, which is disappointing as this feels watered down. That said, though, there are still interesting social and political elements that linger just below the surface.

The film overall can be read as an allegory for the West’s current feelings towards and on-going struggle with within Middle East, and vice versa. The International Military’s policy towards the Formics (the bug-like alien race that attempted to conquer the Earth) is that of total eradication, without regard for their civilization. They never question why the Formics first attacked Earth or to what end they now seem to be rebuilding their forces. They just assume the worse: the Formics intend to come back to Earth. The attitude of hate and ignorance that the film attributes to the International Military and through their propaganda the Earth’s population is similar to how many (on both sides) feel about the West’s current conflict within Middle East – the only way to truly gain victory is simply eradication (which is seemingly fueled by propaganda built on fear). The lesson of the film is that understanding is a better method. Applying this to the conflict in the Middle East is probably an over-reading of the film, but much like in Ender’s Game the current conflict seems to be escalating towards an event that will be catastrophic, irreversible, and civilization altering. The film warns of where unchecked hate and fear lead, when most of Hollywood’s generic output celebrates violence and hate.

Structurally, Hood has a lot of plot to get through, which does hurt his ability to develop supporting characters. Ender is given almost all the film’s character moments, which works well (given how much plot there is in a limited runtime) as the audience does become invested in his journey. However, the supporting characters and secondary storylines suffer greatly. There is almost no backstory or world building. The audience never really gets a full sense of the world Ender has grown up in, rather just quick glimpses. Hood tells his narrative very efficiently, but the film feels a bit emotionally bland. The audience wants to see Ender succeed from a story perspective, but so much is brushed to the side that the audience does not really have too much to grab onto and truly become invested in on a deeper level.

The military’s psychologist at one point expresses her concern for the use of children in war, but really the film does not dig into this idea, which otherwise seems like one of the central ideas in the narrative (I have not read the novel, so I comment purely based on what I saw in the film). The idea of using children to fight a war, tricking them by telling them they are merely playing ‘games’ and continually culturing them to be soldiers and hate the enemy, is very interesting and intellectually compelling. In our modern world, children are used for much the same reason they are in Ender’s Game in gangs (to sell drugs and commit other crimes) and even as soldiers in some third world countries. In both examples, children fall victim to powerful authoritative figures who exploit them using the hardships of their lives and propaganda. Children’s minds are still developing and thus are more susceptible to brainwashing by propaganda (in whatever form it takes). So the question becomes, while we know using children in such a way, as gangs and warlords use them in our modern society, is it still wrong to use them in a similar fashion to potentially save humanity? This question is maybe the most compelling that the film asks, but it spends almost no time addressing it, which is unfortunate. Again, Hood has a lot of plot to get through and seemingly just does not have the screen time.

In many ways, Ender’s Game is a straightforward sci-fi action/drama. Man must fight against an alien race for its very survival. Most of the action takes place in Space and the production design on Earth creates a very futuristic/utopian feeling. And to this degree, the film is entertaining. Its characters are also managed well enough to create an acceptably dramatic experience. The audience cares about Ender (though, I would argue only superficially) and thus are engaged in the story, action, and drama. But, the film is also nothing special. It just feels bland. This is the result of playing it safe in regards to all the interesting questions it raises about the nature of humanity in the face of war. Looking at the potential of what Ender’s Game could have been, it is a great disappointment, but that said it is still an enjoyable Hollywood sci-fi film as it is.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi (the story of a young Johannesburg gang leader) seems like it would translate very well into his ability to tackle Ender’s Game from a place of looking at the social and political ideas that the narrative raises. He also made the politically infused drama Rendition (regarding war-prisoner interrogation). But Ender’s Game is politically mute for the most part. Everything is very subtle and glossed over. It is as if Hood took an interesting narrative, sanitized it of all real grit, and then presented it as a polished, safe Hollywood film (a system/style of filmmaking that has not served him well in the past: X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

Composer Steve Jablonsky, who often works on action films, again offers up a score that emphasizes the action and sets the tone. The action as it is set forth in the film is really marginally interesting as presented (it is basically teens flying around in zero-gravity shooting stun guns at each other or meaningless Space ships firing at each other), but Jablonsky gives everything an extra feeling of excitement as his score seems to raise the stakes. The film has an overall look and feel that can be described as a mix of Gattaca and Starship Troopers (though in both cases much more restrained politically and tonally). Donald McAlpine’s cinematography does a great job giving the film a strong sci-fi aesthetic, as the lighting it very clean. Sean Haworth and Ben Procter’s production design is probably the film’s best attribute. In collaboration with McAlpine’s photography, their work creates the overall feeling that this takes place in a very rigid, futuristic world. Their sets in Space have somewhat of a generic sci-fi look, but they still work. However, the look of the sets and overall design of the scenes on Earth is fantastic. Again, everything looks very clean (the shots of the Space craft taking off set against the mountain landscape are beautiful).

The cast is adequate overall. The narrative, as it is structures, does not really give any of the characters much to do outside of Ender and Graff (though, even he is mostly just an authoritative caricature). Moises Arias (who plays a character completely different than his The Kings of Summer character Biaggio but can seemingly still not escape him), Nonso Anozie, and Viola Davis provide decent small supporting performances. Ben Kingsley takes his highly underwritten character of Mazer Rackham and infuses it with life with his intense eyes. Abigail Breslin plays the film’s only seemingly compassionate character and she is essential to the narrative, and yet is given almost nothing character wise. She merely says plot driven dialog while trying to emote deeper emotions. Hailee Steinfeld’s character of Petra Arkanian is also gravely underwritten. She ends up a stereotypical, boring PG love interest. Harrison Ford is good in the film, playing Graff. He mixes hardened war veteran with loving father well. I might argue that Ford is too sincere in his performance, but that plays into the film not being very dark tonally when it probably should have been. Asa Butterfield is also good as Ender. He does a great job of playing his emotions on the surface non-verbally. The audience can tell what is going on with him emotionally without explicitly needing to be told through dialog.

Summary & score: Ender’s Game is an entertaining sci-fi action/drama targeted at young adults, and to this purpose it is a decent film. The issue with the film is that it squanders the potential to be something more, say something more, and dig deeper into interesting social and political questions (that are clearly central to its narrative). 6/10

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