Movie Review: Ender's Game (2013)
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
Story: 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.