Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Ender's Game" Review: Ender's Journey Isn't Perfect, But The Ends Certainly Justifies The Means


There was a time when authors could unabashedly label their works of fiction as unfilmable. That time was before the digital era of filmmaking came along though, and now that label seems to be more of a challenge for modern day filmmakers than just a simple fact. Watchmen, Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas are some of the best examples of unfilmable novels that made it to the big screen in a form that may have not pleased everyone, but proved that what was once considered unfilmable, was now fair game.

Now we have the revered children's novel by author Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game. A book series that was also said (by its author) that a film adaptation would not work due to the method in which he tells his story. Writer/director Gavin Hood decided to take Card up on that challenge and has brought Ender's Game to the big screen after a near 3 decade wait. How it made the translation is another matter entirely. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 16 Tyler Galleria
Time: 12:20 am, Nov. 2 2013      
Projector Type: Digital      
Film Rating: PG-13       
Film Runtime: 1 hr 54 min   
Studio: Lionsgate

Biases:  
Loves: Thought provoking Sci-fi
Likes: Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld
Neutral: Another larger than life fantasy based world featuring teenagers
Hates: Those last few minutes...sigh
Better than: After Earth


After our planet was nearly decimated by an alien attack, the people of Earth plan on preventing any future attacks by creating a brand new offensive made up entirely of teenage children. Each and every child is tested and only a chosen few are selected to join the IFF Battle School where they are trained and prepared for the eminent conflict with the alien menace. However, out of these gifted children, only one has been selected to lead them into battle and ultimate victory. That child is known as Ender (Asa Butterfield), and his resolve will be tested beyond his wildest expectations as the clock counts down to the final showdown between man and alien.

Not really knowing anything about the novel or book series the film is based around, there was a sort of indifference this reviewer felt when sitting down in that theater. Words of praise from all those who have read the books were certainly responsible for the amount of optimism felt towards its more familiar themes (War Games, Starship Troopers, The Last Starfighter and nearly all other Sci-fi films and/or novels will spring to mind while watching the film). But there was still a lingering doubt that the film could pull it off.


Despite the talented cast, the impressive visual effects and the acclaimed novel itself, there is still this ever present stigma that has been left behind regarding all works of fiction that deal with large scale fantasy based storylines involving teenage protagonists. The Harry Potter films have left a huge gaping hole in the world of cinema that no other franchise seems capable of filling. Try as they might, Percy Jackson, Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, Eragon, Mortal Instruments and countless other book to film adaptations have failed one after the other.

Despite all this talk about the book being labeled as unfilmable, that isn't its greatest hurdle, at least not in this day and age where teenage love triangles dominate most popular genre films. In order to truly succeed, Ender's Game needed to steer clear of all the pitfalls and make its own unique mark. The key to this success lies in the film's focus never shifting from that of its main character and allowing his story to be at the heart of the entire production. As a matter of fact, most of the film's concepts and character interactions are geared much more to mature audiences than those of the pre-teen variety which was happily surprising.


This is Ender's story and no one elses. He has friends (and enemies) that he makes along the way,  but they are never really there except to support Ender's story. When Ender first meets Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) for instance, there is a brief moment when a chill ran down my spine as images of them endlessly flirting with one another ran through my head, but thankfully that never happens. Petra is certainly there as emotional support for Ender, but their relationship is never explored much beyond that. The film scores high marks for never going down that road.

Likewise for the team that Ender eventually recruits. You will begin to recognize their faces by the time the big finale arrives, but you won't really recall their names or even their importance, which may seem like an awful idea in the grand scheme of things but it all helps keep our attention squarely on Ender. His journey is the one we follow and it is the payoff at the end that eventually makes that journey with him worth it.


Ender also has a great supporting cast of veteran actors as well. Harrison Ford now has two fantastic supporting roles under his belt this year (the other being 42), and his role here as the hardened Col. Graff fits his rough and tumble attitude to near perfection. Graff as written is a complicated individual who easily attracts all sorts of hate and resentment for his actions, but Ford plays him in a way where it is impossible to hate the man despite his many failings because in the end, he is right. Ford knows how to find the humanity in Graff which makes him much more sympathetic as opposed to your stereotypical villain type.

The other cast members, which includes Viola Davis as Graff's psychological consultant and Ben Kingsley who plays a mysterious figure that holds the key to defeating the aliens, are unfortunately both wasted in what basically amounts to walk-ons. Their seemingly insignificant roles however are bolstered slightly by each actors ability to take such small roles and make them memorable, where as no name actors likely would have easily been forgotten.


Once again though, keeping the story focused on Ender from beginning to end is the real winner in this case. Some may say that his ascent to power happens a bit too quickly and hat perhaps the film doesn't make a good case for why HE is so important over the other kids, but those valid concerns are trumped by the inevitable payoff we get in the finale when Ender goes to his graduation day and the real purpose behind all his training is revealed in what could be one of the most emotionally impactful twists of any film this year. The resulting confrontation between Ender and Graff is one of the best acted and written scenes of any film released this year.

Another place Ender's Game trumps its competition is with its lead actor, Asa Butterfield. He not only nails the kid-with-the-weight-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders routine, but somehow manages to never be whiny or bratty about it all. His concerns and his reservations are legitimate and the only time he breaks down and wants to call it quits is when something of real consequence occurs that he feels directly responsible for, even if he had no other choice. His performance was a make it or break it deal for the entire film since he was also on camera and he performed brilliantly.


Dealing with some compelling themes and content that isn't usually geared towards young adults and featuring a strong lead performance from Butterfield alongside a stable of strong actors in supporting roles, Ender's Game comes out on top despite some of its obvious failings. The lack of dimension given to all the other characters and a final five minutes of screentime that confuses and confounds more than it enlightens are easily overlooked in favor of an ending that will shock you to your core and have you debating over whether or not the ends justified the means for days after seeing it.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

For a novel that was reportedly unfilmable, Gavin Hood's adaptation remains an entertaining piece of fiction that may not please long time fans of the books, but is far from the disaster most were expecting. By keeping the focus squarely on Ender and his journey towards Battle Commander, the film's devastatingly brutal finale rewards the audience with an ending that will stick with them long after those end credits role. It likely isn't the best adaptation of the novel we could have gotten, but when all is said and done, Ender's Game comes out a winner.

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