erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2013 posts

Wednesday November 13, 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

If “12 Years a Slave” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience it’s partially because it doesn’t have much competition.

What comes to mind? “Amistad”? Meh. “Roots”? TV. “Mandingo”? Please. The very dearth makes one question what so-called liberal Hollywood has been up to for the last 100 years. The Holocaust ended 80 years after slavery but already has its masterpieces: “The Pianist,” “Schindler’s List,” “Nuit et Brouillard,” “Shoah.” American slavery has “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” Insert rebel yell here.

Is it telling that “12 Years” was directed by a Brit (Steve McQueen), and stars mostly Brits (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch)? Is the story of slavery, in other words, still too close to us even after 150 years? It’s our shame and who wants to broadcast their shame? Plus there are practical questions. How will it sell in the South, for one. 

Maybe it’s as simple as this: Slavery is long gone but we’re still working through its consequences. We all agree, give or take, that slavery was wrong, but white Americans still disagree vehemently on racial matters. Black Americans, too. It’s the dialogue we either never really have or never stop having. Both.

All of that is partially why “12 Years” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience. It also happens to be a very powerful film. 12 Years a SlaveIts power lies in understatement, and stillness, and holding onto the horror rather than flinching away from it or turning it into melodrama—as recent films have done with the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing. McQueen shows you a man half-lynched, and holds on it and holds on it. Comedians have a phrase for this—commitment to the bit—but McQueen isn’t demonstrating its tragic side. His camera almost feels non-judgmental. It’s a cold camera, the way Stanley Kubrick’s was a cold camera. The heat, the horror, are up to us to provide.

The worst master
The movie is based upon a true story. Or upon an 1853 book that was based upon a true story.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) was a free-born African-American living with his wife and family in Saratoga, N.Y., who, in 1841, was traduced, drugged and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he had masters both benevolent (Cumberbatch as Ford) and sadistic (Fassbender as Edwin Epps), and the question, going in, and given the title, is how he gets back after 12 years.

Despite the dearth mentioned above, the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South aren’t exactly unfamiliar to us: whippings, lynchings, general inhumanity. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (“Red Tails”; “Three Kings”) still give us unexpected details and subtleties. The slave auction takes place, not outside on the docks, but inside a well-appointed New Orleans home. Half the slaves are naked, and inspected, but there’s little that’s malicious or lascivious about this; they’re inspected the way you would inspect a piece of furniture. They’re commodity. That’s the horror. Not in maliciousness—the sneering and leering lesser filmmakers bring—but in how ordinary it all is.

There’s a surprising freedom within slavery. Solomon, renamed Platt, and passed off as a runaway from Georgia, is allowed to walk to the general store to pick up supplies. He’s allowed to suggest and prove to Ford a means of transporting goods via river raft. He’s allowed to do carpentry work. Then he misunderstands his situation. He talks back to one of the overseers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and winds up fighting and even whipping Tibeats, who returns with two friends to lynch him. They nearly succeed but for the other overseer, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), who stops them but does nothing to stop Solomon’s pain. He leaves him, half-choking on the rope, and on his toes for hours until Ford arrives and cuts him down.

An argument can be made that the benevolent master, Ford, is actually worse than the sadistic master, Epps, since there is no doubt in Epps’ mind, none at all, that his slaves are anything but his property. So why shouldn’t he treat his property the way he wants? Ford’s different. He knows slavery isn’t right. But he still buys into it. He still purchases Solomon and separates a mother from her children. He may save Solomon from a lynching but when Solomon tells him he’s a free man, illegally brought to the South, he doesn’t help him; he sells him. He has debt, and Platt still has value. That’s what you do in capitalism. You buy low, sell high, and sometimes you cut your losses. He cut Platt.  

Solomon makes a few feints at escape. On the first trip to the general store, he ducks into the woods only to come across a lynching. On a subsequent trip, he steals a piece of parchment, uses berry juice as ink, writes a letter to send home. But the man he trusts betrays him and he burns the letter, and, with it, most of his hope.

His demeanor and Latinate vocabulary changes. He avoids eye contact, suffers, ages. One slave, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), a source of tension between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) because of Epps’ desire for her, asks Solomon to kill her. He refuses on religious grounds. Later, because she dares get a bar of soap, she is whipped—not by Epps (at least initially) but by Platt. Epps forces him and he has no other choice. This is the key to the movie—the shift from the many options of a free man to the one of a slave—and is brought home immediately in the shabby building on the outskirts of D.C. when Northup awakes in chains for the first time. He stands and tells his enslavers his name is Solomon Northup and he is a free-born man. The men nod and crank the chains down until he is on all fours. Then they whip him. Then they whip him again. Then they take his torn and blood-splattered shirt and give him a slave shirt.

Isolation
If there’s a fault in the film, a void, it may be Solomon’s isolation within the slave community. I don’t know if this is historically accurate—a result of the fact that Solomon is an educated free man living among uneducated slaves—or if it’s because director Steve McQueen tends deal in isolation. In “Hunger,” Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is physically isolated in a British prison; in “Shame,” Brandon (Fassbender again) is psychologically isolated by his sexual addiction. Now we get Solomon in the South.

With whom does he bond? Initially with two other free-born men sold into slavery: Clemens (Chris Chalk) and Robert (Michael K. Williams). The three plot and discuss their options. But on the voyage to New Orleans, Robert develops smallpox, dies, and is tossed overboard; and at port, Clemens’ white benefactor shows up to free him, and Clemens ignores, or can do nothing about, Solomon’s cries for help. No help is forthcoming. He’s alone.

On the Ford plantation, Solomon bonds mostly with Ford. On the Epps’ plantation, he bonds a bit with Patsy but shares the stage mostly with Epps. The other slaves aren’t even flat characters; they’re stick figures in the background. He and Patsy meet Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) at another plantation, who, in classic American fashion, has raised herself up from field slave to domestic servant to someone who is now served; but there’s no bond there, either. It’s a one-off. It’s a lesson. During a cottonwood infestation, he’s loaned to Judge Turner (Bryan Batt), where he harvests sugar cane during the day and engages in silent nighttime sex with (Ashley Dyke), but we don’t hear a word from her. During the funeral of a slave, lost in despair, Solomon begins to sing the blues with everyone else. He joins their song. But he doesn’t bond.

Again, I don’t know if this makes the story more historically accurate. It might even make the story better. But it is a void.

Restraint
Even so, go. Please. “12 Years a Slave” is one of the best movies of the year about the great American tragedy. The movie’s power lies in its restraint. It holds something back for pressure, as Robert Frost said about good poetry. You can feel this restraint, this pressure, in McQueen’s direction, Ejiofor’s performance, and the soundtrack music by Hans Zimmer. You want release and they don’t give it.

In some respects, the standout performance is Fassbender’s. He’s ferocious not just in his sadism but in his righteousness. There’s no doubt in his eyes. These people are his. When the local sheriff, and Solomon’s white benefactor from the North, show up on the plantation to finally free Solomon after 12 long years, we get no cheap thrills, no sense of vindication from a beaten Epps. The opposite. His righteousness grows. Some government functionary is repossessing his property? Even though he paid for it? He’ll see about this. And off he rides to seek restitution. He’s ready to start a civil war over it.

There are no cheap thrills at the end, either. It’s a happy ending but it’s not a Hollywood ending. Solomon greets his family, including his new son-in-law, after 12 years away, with tears of genuine sorrow. “I apologize for my appearance,” he says. “But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”

Producer Bill Pohlad has said of the film, “We felt there's never been a film about slavery that dealt with it in such an unflinching way.”

Now we have one.

Posted at 07:57 AM on Nov 13, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday November 11, 2013

Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

FORSOOTH: SPOILERS

For all its battle scenes, for all its moments of light comedy, “Thor: The Dark World” begins abysmally. These are the first words we hear, spoken in voiceover by Anthony Hopkins in full Shakespearean:

Long before the birth of light, there was darkness.

No duh, Odin.

Then we get a battle 5,000 years ago, with, on one side, Malekith and the Dark Elves (which should totally be a band name), and, on the other, the army of Asgard, led by Thor’s grandfather Bor. Yes: Bor. Takes a lot of balls to name a character that.

In this battle, Malekith plans to use “the Aether” to return the nine realms of the universe into darkness, but he’s defeated. But the Aether can’t be destroyed. So what to do? “Bury it deep,” one Asgardian, possibly Bor, says, “where no one will ever find it.”

It’s found. Guess by whom?

Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, London
I’ve never really been a fan of this stuff. Know that going in. Even when I was a teenager in the 1970s and collected Marvel Comics and worshipped at the feet of Stan Lee and Steve Englehart, I never collected “Thor” or “Dr. Strange” or any comic that was too otherworldly or cross-dimensional. Radioactive spider, sure. Gamma bomb and cosmic rays, of course. Thor: The Dark WorldBut Asgard? Verily, it maketh me stiff with boredom.

This is what I missed. There are apparently nine realms to the universe. Asgard is one, Midgard (us) is another. One of the funniest moments in the movie for me, unintentional, occurs early. Titles tell us which realm we’re in: Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim. Then: London.

So every 5,000 years there’s a convergence in which the nine realms are perfectly aligned, and where travel between realms becomes easier. It’s like wormholes open up or something. This is also the perfect time, if you’re so inclined, to return the universe to darkness. Which is the plan of the reawakened Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). In Biblical terms, he wants to go back to the time before the third verse of Genesis. He wants to return us to the moment before “Let there be light.”

It takes a while for the principles to figure this out. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is too busy quelling disturbances in the nine realms, and Odin is too busy making grand pronouncements and being an ass. Seriously, is that guy ever right about anything? At one point he shouts, “The Dark Elves are dead!” When does he shout it? Right before the Dark Elves attack.

Odin, though, may be right about one thing. Early on, he counsels Thor against getting too involved with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), since humans, at best, live 1/50 of the time Asgardians live. It’s an interesting point. Jane, for example, is upset that Thor has been gone for two years but for him it’s like two weeks. I’m curious how the romance is viewed on Asgard. How often are there interrealm romances? Are there laws against it? Is this a Loving v. Virginia thing? Or a King Edward VIII/Wallis Simpson moment? The movie’s perspective of the romance, though, is decidedly Midgardian: He’s hot, she’s hot, why not?

Thor only actually shows up then because Jane stumbles upon one of those inter-realm portals, pops through it, and, in some starry, rocky land that seems like a bad dream, finds, between two rocks, the Aether, which bonds with her body. That’s why Thor takes her to Asgard. And that’s why she’s in Asgard when the Dark Elves attack.

It’s very “Star Wars”-y, this attack, and even though I recognized it was done well I was bored. Plus I kept thinking: Wait, weren’t the Dark Elves in stasis all this time? So how did they develop the technology to take down Asgard? Did they always have it? Is Asgardian tech stagnating? Are they like Microsoft in this way?

One ship manages to get through Asgardian defenses, the one, coincidentally, carrying both Malekith and his chief warrior, Algrim/Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who frees the many prisoners of Asgard, which leads to another rousing battle. Rah. Malekith, after bigger prey (Jane and the Aether), is stopped, and scarred, by Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor’s mom, who has powers of her own. Alas, not enough. She’s killed. And even with Asgard totally defenseless, even with the very fabric of reality hanging in the balance, Asgard takes the time for a good old-fashioned Viking funeral: boat, flaming arrow, waterfalls, pomp and circumstance.

Does Odin have a plan to deal with the Dark Elves? I forget. Thor has one, though, involving his friends, Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Heimdall, who are always underused in these movies, as well as his half-brother and chief nemesis Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was a bit petulant in the first movie, became Hulk’s rag doll in “The Avengers,” and seems to be having a blast here. Thor’s plan is treasonous, requiring escape from Asgard. The big issue is trust: Can Loki be trusted? But that’s actually part of the plan. Thor, Loki and Jane make it into the dark realm for a faceoff with Malekith and Kurse, but Loki betrays him, cutting off Thor’s hammer-wielding right hand, rendering him powerless. Ah, but it’s a Lokian illusion! As Malekith is drawing the Aether from Jane’s levitating body, Thor cries, “Loki—now!” and retrieves his hammer and smashes the Aether into nothingness.

Except ... it then reassembles itself and enters Malekith, who becomes more powerful than ever, and just a step away now from returning the universe into darkness forever. So, yeah, bad plan, Thor.

The final battle takes place in London, Greenwich mean time.

As close to gay porn as mainstream movies get
It’s no surprise that in this epic battle between the forces of dark and light, Thor takes the side of light. What’s surprising is how much the movie embraces the light.

Since “The Dark Knight,” which made a mint in 2008, the trend in superhero movies has been toward the dark, gloomy and tortured. “Thor 2” bucks the trend by going light and comedic. At times it’s almost camp. Its tone is reminiscent of the first “Superman” movie with Christopher Reeve. The hero, tall, handsome and strong, plays it straight, while almost everyone around him, even the chief villain (Luthor, Loki), makes with the jokes. It’s a shame the jokes aren’t better.

They’re not bad. It’s just all a bit broad. I love me some Kat Dennings, playing Darcy, Jane’s cynical, down-to-Earth friend, but she’s on a sitcom now, “2 Broke Girls,” and there’s a sitcomy feel to some of her lines and line readings. Hiddleston plays it better but even his lines aren’t particularly good. Hemsworth as Thor is better than ever—my friend Ward calls “Thor” as close to gay porn as mainstream movies get, and an early torso-washing scene bears this out—but they’re having him do silly stuff. He enters a London apartment and hangs Mjöllnir, his hammer, on the coat rack. It’s amusing for a second. Then you go, “Wouldn’t that bring the wall down? Or the apartment building?” Later, Thor is battling Malekith and gets clobbered into a tube station. The doors to the subway open and there stands a pretty blonde, agog. “How do you get to Greenwich?” he asks. “Takes this train three stops,” she answers. Which he does, while she flirts. Oops, didn’t mean to lean into your broad chest but the train just started, tee hee. All of this while the very fabric of reality hangs in the balance. Shouldn’t he have just called Mjöllnir and gotten on with it? Shouldn’t the writers?

A lot happens in “Thor: The Dark World.” Loki dies but no he doesn’t. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) does the Walter White thing in his tightie-whities. (Or is that the Will Farrell thing?) The universe is saved but for how long? And where’s Odin at the end? Do we care?

I do appreciate the attempt, by director Alan Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), and screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, to go light rather than dark with this material, despite the title. They give us some great CGI battle sequences—particularly between Thor and Kurse, and Thor and Malekith. They try to have fun. But in the end the fun bits rarely feel organic to Thor’s story, just to ours, watching. In the end, it still ain’t Joss Whedon.

Posted at 06:21 AM on Nov 11, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday November 08, 2013

Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

When the Academy Award nominations roll out in January, you’ll probably hear about Matthew McConaughey in this and Robert Redford in that and Chiwtel Ejiofor in the other, but nary a word about Will Smith in “After Earth.” Shame. It’s truly an astonishing performance. For 20 years, Smith has exuded effortless charm and fun onscreen and here he strips himself of both. He gives us nothing. He’s a lump. Kudos to director M. Night Shyamalan for culling such a leaden performance from such a charismatic actor.

“After Earth” is, in a word, awful. It’s a MST3K-type movie. You watch it with friends and toss jokes at the screen. It’s the only way to survive its 100-minute length.

It’s also a little creepy. It feels vaguely Scientology-y. Story by Will Smith, by the way.

After EarthApparently in the near future we will make Earth uninhabitable (global warming, etc.), so will leave, travel light years, and settle on a new planet, which we will name Nova Prime.

All together now: Nova Prime? That’s the name we came up with? Did we get to vote on it? Were there other options? I’m sorry, but nothing indicates B-grade science fiction to me more than “Nova Prime.” I see a 1950s paperback with a drawing of a handsome man and woman grappling in the foreground, and a rocket ship in the background: 35 cents.

A thousand years later an alien race wants to take over Nova Prime (to rename it?), so they sic Ursas on us, huge, multi-limbed creatures which can’t see us until we exude pheromones; until we show fear. Which, since they’re scary, we do. But one man figures out how to defeat them: Just don’t show fear, yo. That man—and again with the names—is Cypher Raige of the United Ranger Corps (Will Smith). His heroism will eventually make him a general. It will also make him a leaden lump. No fear, but not much of anything else, either. Every bit of humanity is drained from his personality.

It’s a father-son story. Cypher’s teenage son, Kitai (Smith’s son Jaden), is attempting to live up to the old man (as is Jaden), so joins Ranger Corps boot camp. He’s good. He can run faster, jump  higher, than the other cadets, but in the field he’s a mess. Basically he’s afraid. When he was 10 he watched as his older sister was slaughtered by an Ursa, and the memory always drags him back to fear. It’s a source of tension between father and son, Stoney and Weepy, because the son wasn’t there and didn’t help; and because the father wasn’t there.

Eventually these two will be the only survivors of a crash landing back on Earth, where, as the injured Cypher tells his son ominously, “Everything has evolved to kill humans.”

Cool! Except, it turns out not everything has evolved to kill humans. That flock of birds just kind of swirls in the air, the gibbons don’t attack until Kitai throws a rock at them, and the bird of prey, yes, captures Kitai but eventually saves his life. Plus evolved jungle cats are more interested in the eggs in the nest than Kitai. But the leeches? They have totally evolved to kill humans.

Besides, the main concern isn’t the animals on Earth but the Ursa that was in a cage in the tail section of the ship, which landed 100 kilometers away. That’s also where the distress signal is located. Since Cypher is injured, he can’t retrieve it. It’s up to the son. It’s a journey in which he will keep doing the wrong thing (despite communication with and counsel from his father) until he does the right thing (without communication from his father). In the end he will live up to his father’s name. In battle with the Ursa, he will reach the still place of the soul and show no fear; because, as the father told him, and as the tagline reminds us, “Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”

This is seen as a positive, by the way: showing no fear. But if it leads to becoming a leaden lump, what’s the point?

More, how do you show no fear? Here’s Cypher’s counsel:

Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity, Kitai.

Right. As in “Oh my god, that lion might eat me in one second!” People get so hung up on unreal future thoughts like that.

Domestically, the movie bombed this summer. Since “Independence Day” in 1996, Will Smith has starred in 16 movies. Twelve of them have grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. “After Earth”? $60 million. Because movies are real but going to see them is a choice.

Posted at 07:44 AM on Nov 08, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Thursday November 07, 2013

Movie Review: Now You See Me (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Is this the moment when movies finally moved too fast for their own good?

“Now You See Me,” directed by Louis Letierrer (“Clash of the Titans”; “The Incredible Hulk”), zips and swirls and spins around its characters so fast that it leaves them behind. It gives us awful dialogue and predictable situations. It goes “Abracadabra!” but no magic happens.

The Four Horsemen
There’s promise at the beginning. Four magicians with different talents are recruited by a mysterious man in a hoodie and reappear a year later as a great Vegas magic act—a one-off but we don’t know it at the time. Amid their various swirls and spins they take a man from the audience (he’s French), ask him for his bank (it’s in Paris), transport him into its vaults, and then transport back, with the money, which is then showered onto the audience. Now You See Me posterThis brings in both the FBI, in the guise of Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and Interpol, in the much hotter guise of Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent).

The movie becomes theirs. Rhodes, cocky, annoyed, is ready to take down the Four Horsemen, as the act is known, at their next show in New Orleans, but he winds up being taken down on stage, literally, by audience members, who have been hypnotized to tackle whoever says the word “Freeze!” (Anyone who didn’t see this coming wasn’t paying attention.) Meanwhile the Horsemen’s benefactor/manager, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), winds up being bankrupted by his own act. That’s the big trick this time. They take the millions from Tressler’s bank account and disperse it among the audience, all of whom have lost money during the global financial meltdown. It’s Robin Hood with a puff of smoke. After a chase through New Orleans, in which Rhodes is made to look the fool again, the magicians disappear.

The final act takes place in New York, by which time our Horsemen, now famous, the talk of whatever mass media is left, are merely on the edges of the story.

Subplots include a magic-act debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes multimillion dollar videos, and who hounds and embarasses Rhodes; the story of Lionel Shrike, a magician who, years ago, attempted to escape from a safe in the bottom of the East River but who was never seen again; and a mysterious organization called “The Eye,” which is like Freemasons Hall of Fame for magicians.

The actors playing the Horsemen play versions of other roles they’ve played better elsewhere. Jesse Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas is supersmart and talks superfast in the manner of Mark Zuckerberg. (One wonders if Eisenberg will ever be allowed to play dumb again.) Woody Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney is a washed-up rapscallion in the manner of Woody Harrelson. Isla Fisher is the girl who used to be with Atlas and now receives the halfhearted, amused attentions of McKinney, while Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, a pickpocket, is just happy to be there. They’re not bad together, but they disappear—poof!—for most of the movie. Because we need less talk and more swirls and swoops.

I like the “corked” conversation between Harrelson and Fisher. That was fun. Plus we get some not-bad dialogue about magic:

Thaddeus: When a magician waves his hand and says, “This is where the magic is happening,” the real trick is happening somewhere else.

But the focus on the FBI is dull, and the romance between Rhodes and Dray is so forced it almost feels like rape. Laurent is given almost nothing to do. At one point, because Interpol has no jurisdiction in a situation, she’s told to wait in the car. When Rhodes returns she yells at him, “Don't you EVER tell me to stay in the car, EVER!” Right. Sure. OK. But ... why did you wait in the car?

The Fifth Horseman
There’s a lot of chest thumping, arguments over who’s a step ahead of whom, and it all leads up to what’s it all about, Alfie. Turns out the mastermind of it all, the man in the hoodie, is the son of Lionel Shrike. It’s an elaborate revenge plot taken against the safe company that made the defective safe that killed him, the bank in France that I forget what, and Arthur Tressler who did somethingorother.

So who’s the man in the hoodie? The one you least suspect: FBI agent Dylan Rhodes. And at the end, he frames Thaddeus Bradley as the Fifth Horseman, inducts the Four Horsemen into “The Eye,” and goes to France to continue his bad romance with Dray.

“Now You See Me” is an empty, flashy movie, but it’s not all bad. Here’s my favorite part: a bit of dialogue on an airplane. It carries an implicit criticism of the entire movie industry:

Rhodes: What I hate is people who exploit other people.
Dray: Exploit them how?
Rhodes: By taking advantage of their weaknesses. Their need to believe in something that’s unexplainable in order to make their lives more bearable.

Of course “Now You See Me” didn’t exactly make my life more bearable. L’opposite.

Posted at 07:46 AM on Nov 07, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday November 02, 2013

Movie Review: Ender's Game (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

No 15-year-old should be forced to act distraught and say the line, “I’ve killed an entire species!” but that’s the task given Asa Butterfield at the end of “Ender’s Game,” written and directed by Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), and adapted from the 1985 sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card.

Butterfield (“Hugo”) does his best. He’s good throughout but that’s just an absurd line. Plus we don’t feel the genocide. It’s all simulation. Or simulationy.

What to make of “Ender’s Game”? Earlier this year, there was buzz from the usual sci-fi geek corners but sci-fi geeks are beginning to weary me. Their stories are both futuristic and same-old. You watch “Ender’s Game” and go, “Oh, so he’s ‘The One.’ Oh, so he makes friends and enemies like in ‘Harry Potter,’ and they play a game like Quidditch. Oh, and here’s the instinct argument like in ‘Star Wars.” And here’s Harrison Ford like in ‘Star Wars.’”

Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You are my pain in the ass.

Bedtime for Bonzo
Ender's GameStory: Fifty years earlier, the Earth was attacked by an alien race, the Yadda-Yaddas, but we defeated them because of one man, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who shot his airship straight up their caboose. We’ve been waiting and preparing for the second attack ever since.

Well, “preparing.” As of now, it’s down to Col. Graff (Ford) as the gruff mentor/manipulator, Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) as the empathetic counselor, and a bunch of kids with good hand-eye coordination. Ender, of course, is the best of the bunch. “He’s The One,” Col. Graff says. Major Anderson isn’t so sure. Plus she sees the boy as a boy and not just a soldier. Why does it have to be boys and girls again, rather than, you know, young men and women? Something about teens being more intuitive and fearless. Not to mention the key Hollywood demographic.

By this time, apparently, Earth is so overpopulated that couples are restricted to two kids. Ender’s parents are the exception. They ask for a dispensation and wind up with him. Their first child, Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak), is too violent. Their second child, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), is too empathetic. Ender, the third, is just right.  

Games need to be won; he wins them. Tests need to be passed; he does. A boy bullies him so he beats him and beats him and beat him. Because he’s violent like his brother? No, because it was a tactic to end future conflicts. That’s the answer Col. Graff is waiting for. And off Ender goes into military training.

He’s a skinny kid, too smart for his own good, but he wins over the usual group of multi-cultural geeks away from the fat British kid; then he wins over the fat British kid. He has to deal with a big, tough drill sergeant, Dap (Nonso Anozie) and a bullying platoon leader, Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). The question with each is: Do their hard outer shells contain a gooey center? Dap, yes. Bonzo, no.

Ender gathers his Hermione (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) and his various Ron Weasleys (Bean and Alai). The Quidditch here is a zero-gravity shooting game where the goal is to neutralize all of your opponents or make it end-to-end and win. Ender employs the apparently unheard-of tactic of flying across en masse, so the outer portions of the team are neutralized, frozen, but not the inner portions, who make it end-to-end and win. His reward? Bonzo picks a fight with him in the shower. Bonzo winds up in the hospital. This so disturbs Ender he wants out. Or at least he wants to email his sister Valentine.

Me in the audience: Email? We’re still doing that?

Bedtime for 'Ender’s'
There’s boring stuff throughout. Viola Davis is given nothing to do, and she and Harrison Ford have mother-father conversations. “What about his feelings?” she says. “I want him to toughen up,” he says.

When Ender bolts, sorta, Valentine and Graff have this conversation:

Valentine: You just want him to re-enlist.
Graff: I want him to save lives.
Valentine: What about his life?

His life? Aren’t we still worried about the fate of the planet?

More, what about the story? The worst conversations in movies are always the ones urging the principles away from the story. They’re actually kind of an insult to us in the audience. “Excuse me, but I paid to see this story. Could we just continue, please?”

Of course Ender reenlists and commands his teen squad and he meets up with and is trained by Mazer Rackham, who ain’t dead, and who has Maori tattoos on his face. There are battle simulations. In the second-to-last one, he loses. In the last one, he wins and wipes out the enemy’s planet. Yay! Guess what? ’Tweren’t no sim. He really did it. And we get the line I quoted at the beginning of this review.

So how does a boy who feels awful sending a douchebag like Bonzo to the hospital deal with wiping out an entire species? Particularly when he realizes that maybe they weren’t the bad guys after all? That maybe we were the bad guys? He deals with it pretty well, considering. But we’ll find out more in the next movies. If there are more movies. This one isn’t doing particularly boffo at the box office. More like Bonzo.

“Ender’s Game” is the first in a series of novels by Orson Scott Card, who apparently worked where I used to work, University Book Store in Seattle, but who is more famous, or infamous, for his opposition to same-sex marriage. (He has written that homosexuals suffer from “tragic genetic mixups,” among other things.) He lost a “Superman” scripting job because of these views and they may be impacting “Ender’s” box office. Maybe that’s what happens when a man’s stories are set in the future but his mind is set in the past.

I detect no homophobia in “Ender’s,” though. Just same-old same-old.

Posted at 10:05 AM on Nov 02, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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