Friday, November 1, 2013

Ender's Game

Review by Matt Finley

I confess - in trying to persuade folks to take a peek at Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender's Game, I’m not above invoking the name of Britain’s favorite spell-casting tween, Harry bloody Potter. Maybe Rowling’s Hogwarts never saw as many harsh, nude shower room beatings as Card’s low-orbit battle school, but both stories share some of the same dog-eared coming-of-age archetypes – a shy, preternaturally talented young boy sent to a specialized academy where he hones his gifts while nurturing friendships and rivalries with a motley roster of similarly skilled pupils.

Granted, these are two of 10,000 stories that tread this course (not to mention that Harry’s shotgunning butter beers while Ender is groomed for military genocide), but thanks to writer/director Gavin Hood’s (TSOTSI) cinematic adaptation of ENDER’S GAME, I’ve got another point of comparison: Both stories were adapted into reverent, enjoyable film properties that diluted just enough narrative and dulled precisely enough emotional impact to make the prospect of experiencing (or re-experiencing) the source material a welcome task.

Hood opens the film with a maddeningly cliché expositional voiceover that explains how a race of grody-to-the-max insectoids – the Formics – attacked the earth, igniting an interstellar conflict for which the International Fleet has begun recruiting gifted children for their superior creativity in devising combat strategy. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), the youngest member in a family of military flunk outs, quickly distinguishes himself as a brilliant tactician in the grueling battle school where students are turned against one another in competition to become fleet commanders against the Formic swarm.

Butterfield is good enough to pull off Ender’s waifish-yet-fiery wunderkind, so it’s a shame that the rest of the cast are painted into bland character types. It isn’t enough that Ender is openly attempting to find a middle way between the weepy sympathy of his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), and the sociopathic violence of brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak). Hood makes sure his military mentors – callous grunt Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and matronly psychologist Major Anderson (Viola Davis), - personify a tiresomely similar duality.

Ender’s classmates, meanwhile, fall into one of three categories: friend, bully, or extra, save for the one female student, Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), whose friendship with Ender thankfully avoids the swooning, lovesick canoodling of most popular contemporary YA fare.

The sci-fi trappings, from the mandible-snicking Formics to the skin-hugging battle suits are borderline boilerplate, but rendered lovingly enough to create a visually engaging future world. I felt sorry for Hood, his film is being released right on the heels of GRAVITY and all. Taken without a comparative context, ENDER’S GAME's zero-grav battleroom sequences are gorgeously rendered bits of imaginative action.

(By the way … I hate to make yet another Harry Potter comparison, and I know next to nothing about sports, but both Quidditch and the battleroom game are designed such that teams compete against each other to score points, but once the object of the game is completed – the catching of the snitch and the entering of the enemy’s gate, respectively – all points are nullified and the winner is determined based on that one thing. Now Whackbat – there’s a sport.)

As much as I seem to be slagging Hood’s vision, the sheer undertaking of ENDER’S GAME as a PG-13 blockbuster was a courageous venture. While current boycotts of the film are directed at Orson Scott Card’s recent incendiary hate-speech against gays, the book itself is an object of contention for its portrayals of violence, and – some allege – the lack of moral responsibility that Ender demonstrates for his actions. Hood’s approach is to highlight Ender’s empathy, while also demonstrating that the emotional understanding gleaned from this attribute can be shaped into a deadlier weapon than even hatred or fear.

By taking a much more transparent moral stand against war than Card, some of the story’s overarching emotional impact is dulled, but Ender’s ultimate fate is no less affecting.  

I hear a lot of grumbling from folks who have grown tired of “Chosen One” narratives. And I get it. There’s not much suspense to be mined from a story in which a moth-eaten prophesy or apoplectic oracular vision one chapter in reveals that our protagonist is predestined to overcome his dark foil. It’s in this regard that Ender Wiggin differs from Harry Potter and all the other augury-engineered heroes who chug along their pre-destined paths, bearing their inventoried burdens like so many rusted freights. Yes, ENDER’S GAME is about a hero who’s chosen. Even a hero who seems destined to succeed.  But just as empathy can be wielded as a blade, so, too, can victory be suffered as a wound. (3 out of 4 Stars)              

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