Sunday, November 3, 2013
"Ender's Game" could have been worse. As an adaptation of a classic SciFi novel written by Orson Scott Card*, this movie could have been an absolute train wreck. Just imagine if they had tried to pull in the trends of modern teen fantasy movies, turning Battle School into a Space Hogwarts, or added a romantic plot line, or just casted Kristin Stewart in any role. I could see a Hollywood producer, cigar in mouth, tearing out whole pages of the original 1985 novel, and shouting to his loyal minion, Gavin Hood, "this is too bleak! I want more adventure, kids want fun! They want Percy Jackson in space! And throw in a funny alien sidekick." Luckily, that wasn't the movie that got made. Instead they stuck mainly towards a faithful, though badly rushed adaptation of the novel, with just as many good decisions as bad ones.
The original "Ender's Game" is a very interesting read, one that does not easily lend itself towards the easy mediocrity that the Hollywood system that made such crap as "Oblivion" and "Elysium" seems to love. Its something of a precursor to "Neon Genesis Evangelion", where the main characters are not exactly the great child heroes following a Joseph Campbell journey, but rather tortured victims of a society manipulating them into becoming monsters. There is a very bleak sense of cruelty that dominates everything about Ender Wiggins' journey in this novel, as every step in his journey, every bully he overcomes, is all just a pre-planned psychological manipulation turning this boy into a perfect computerized commander, a tool to wipe out an alien species (notably not called "Buggers" as in the novels) that serves as the greatest threat to humanity. The results of his journey is not a proud return to Earth, but devastated people, carrying burdens that no child should ever have to bare.
Some of that narrative actually survives within this film of "Ender's Game". I can't say this is a success of Gavin Hood, who previously directed one of the worst superhero movies of all time, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine". Rather its the actors managing to pull together decent performances despite terrible material to work with. The script is rushed, desperately trying to fit every ounce of the novel's story within less than two hours of screentime, which is simply hopeless. The tone is lost, which was probably the intent, trying to work off of the book's brand recognition while still making a stupid fun Blockbuster, an impossible task. But I can't call this movie a complete disaster. There are some special effects sequences that actually manage to work, most of the cast manages to breath life into their deeply-constrained characters, and the story's importance and brilliance still manages to breath through. This isn't the great "Ender's Game" movie that you might have wanted, but it isn't any cause to demand Gavin Hood's head on a stick either.
The casting of this movie is as Academy Award-studded as any movie starring children could ever hope to be. Ender is played by Asa Butterfield**, who starred as the titular character in "Hugo" two years ago. Asa Buttermilk Pancakes is a very strong performer, managing to pull forth the barely-contained rage that Ender is holding back. He doesn't fully manage to recreate that character's intense empathy, insane intelligence, and his tragic kindness, but there's only so much one can do with a script as insufficient as the Gavin Hood put together. Abigail Breslin, also nominated for an Oscar for her work in "Little Miss Sunshine", plays his sister Valentine, who was previously a very important presence in the novel, but now has two scenes and Breslin is terrible in both of them. Again, I'd would blame Hood, who butchered that character and removed her entire plotline. Though fans of the the book and Card's overall series will be much more furious to see Ender's sadist brother Peter is barely in the movie at all, and only comes off as a pubescent bully, not a true psychopath and a symbol of Ender's dark side. Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress despite playing the main character in "True Grit" plays Petra, a character that is absolutely destroyed in this adaptation. The less said about it, the better, her character is a disaster. There's even the hint of romance between Ender and Petra which is... uch... no, please no.
The adult actors are not slouch either. Harrison Ford is giving the best performance he's given in decades as the commander of the Battle School, a completely ruthless man driven by desperation to transform Ender into the tool he needs to defeat an alien menace. I feel bad I underestimate Harrison Ford in my predictions for Star Wars Episode VII, this man can still do anything, and he could probably still rule that franchise. Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley, both Academy alums, also play minor supporting roles, but have very little to do with their characters. Either way, Gavin Hood definitely assembled the correct tools, trying to drive his movie with as much Oscar talent as possible. The only problem is that actors can only do so much, the director is still really the star of the show. And when Hood is rushing through the novel at breakneck speed - repeating the same mistakes that destroyed "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" - the ultimate failure of the product is inevitable.
For a novel that is only about 400 pages long there is actually a considerable amount of story within "Ender's Game", moving through Ender's years of brutal training. The movie turns that into about a month, its hard to actually tell how much time has passed. There was a vast and creative cast of characters in the book, that's now limited to Ender and Harrison Ford. We have an interstellar war, the brutality of an elementary school magnified by engineered conflict, Ender's own loneliness and desperation to just survive, and plenty of other sideplots all thrown into just two hours. We've lost the sheer horror of what is being done to create the perfect commander. Worse than that, we've lost so much of the Ender character - its never really clear why this child is supposedly so brilliant in this version. What this movie needed was a whole entire hour of additional screentime. Not for more scenes developing the story, that's already there, just scenes building the characters and the mood. But Gavin Hood doesn't seem to believe in that. He's a mechanic, not a storyteller.
Please, Hood, stop making big-budget movies. That's a conclusion you should draw from this. Just stop.
The Locke and Demosthenes storyline has been removed, which was probably a smart move. It doesn't directly tie into Ender's own adventure and cutting back to Earth would only spoil the mood of isolation that Ender has to endure. Also, even though Orson Scott Card was brilliant in predicting blogs decades before their inception, he seems to have massively overestimated their effect. I'd like to be Hegemon of the world, but how much has this blog given me? 0.04 cents of ad revenue. So clearly that would not have played well with modern audiences.
To be positive, the special effects sequences are rather well done. The zero gravity Battle Room scenes are everything you could have wanted, almost exactly what I imagined when reading the book. The only problem is that we only get two Battle Room scenes, as Ender's Dragon Army is shot straight to its final battle against two opponents. This movie only had a $110 million budget, so maybe there just wasn't enough left over in the war chest to film more Battle Room. (This would also explain why the movie repeats an "Independence Day"-esque sequence of fighter jets battling alien spaceships several times.) Then there's the Commander School, where most of the money seems to have gone, which looks too good. They spent too much money here, and I won't go into spoilers as to why.
But the result is just inadequate. "Ender's Game" is a fantastic book, and I should be here writing about a stirring emotional tale, not something that so poorly manages to live up to its potential. This should have been one of the best movies of the year if the focus was in the right places. But it wasn't. Mediocrity was not what anybody wanted from this novel, though I'm sure Orson Scott Card will enjoy his paycheck. Asa Buttersmithblackmumbaso will have a long career ahead of him, even despite this misstep. If you really need to see a space movie this weekend, go for it. Otherwise, read the book. Whatever movie you manage to project into your head will certainly be far better made that this.
* Apparently Orson Scott Card is a massive and notorious homophobe, to the point that he claims to have coined the term "homophobe". So I've been told to boycott this movie because of Card's insane political views. My reaction to that is: chill out. Last year everybody was pissed at Chick-fil-A because its owner hates abortion. You know, isn't it bad enough that we have to divide our entire country into colored states and tear our economy apart over petty arguments? Now we have to politicize our fucking fast food and stupid Hollywood blockbusters because of Facebook low-impact campaigns? When I bought a chicken sandwich, was I saying I'm pro-choice? No, I was saying I was hungry. I don't want to have to divide up my consumer habits based on political issues. Orson Scott Card might be the world's biggest asshole, but "Ender's Game" is still a good book, and I'd kick Dan Cathy in the balls if I had a chance, but his Spicy Chicken Sandwich is delicious, man.
** Fun fact: in 1999 Jake Lloyd was actually considered for the role of Ender Wiggin. So remember: this movie could have been worse. MUCH WORSE.