Movie Review - Ender's Game
December 5, 2013
The literary world first met young Ender Wiggins back in 1977 when he appeared as the protagonist in a short story written by Orson Scott Card. This was the story of a young boy named Ender set centuries into the future in a world that had fought, and barely defeated, an alien race known as "Buggers" (changed to "Formics" in later writings). In order to prepare for anticipated future battles with the Buggers, the best and the brightest children were taken from their families and shipped off to deep space Battle School where, in addition to rigorous basic military training, their tactical skills were developed, all with one goal in mind - future war. So popular was Ender that Card expanded on the story and in 1985 released ENDER'S GAME, a military science fiction young adult novel that delved deeper into geopolitical commentary and subtext, while introducing more textured characters with intricate back story and interpersonal relationships. Debuting to worldwide popular and critical acclaim, ENDER'S GAME spawned an entire series of "Ender" books with a film adaptation always lurking in the back of Card's mind. An updated version of the book was then released in 1991 with political plot lines updated to reflect the end of the Cold War, yet it isn't until now after years of uphill battles of its own that ENDER'S GAME finds itself victorious in making it onto the big screen. The result of this victory is in a word - WOW!
Ender Wiggins is not your average 12-year old. Extraordinarily bright and intuitive, he is quickly picked by Colonel Hyrum Graff as the one to watch among the trainees at Battle School. With the clock ticking in preparation for the next battle with the Formics, finding someone to not only lead the charge remotely through a virtual command platform (and have others obey his commands), but exhibit exemplary tactical skills is critical to the future of mankind. And as if the rigors of training isn't enough, there is always the looming specter of the legend that was Mazer Rackham, the general who defeated the Formics years earlier in mankind's last meeting with the insect-like species.
Thanks to a preternatural understanding of human nature, and superb tactical thought processes, Ender outshines his fellow other trainees, quickly moving the ranks of the team structure of school and soon finding himself hand-picked by Graff and shipped to command school, deep in space on an outpost once manned by the Formics. But it's more than the possibility of commanding troops and staging a battle that Ender must face; there is very much alive Mazer Rackham, Colonel Graff, and his own conscience.
When I raved and championed writer/director Gavin Hood and his Academy Award winning film, "Tsotsi", some years back, one of the stand-out elements of the film and Hood's storytelling was his ability to find the best and worst in humanity in a microcosm, creating an intimacy with the character and the story that could touch the heart and the mind of the audience. He finds the nuance and layers and textures of the human condition and of one man's psyche and brings it to life for the world to see. The beauty with what he did in "Tsotsi" and that in the grander scale of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and now ENDER'S GAME, is that Hood retains that intimacy of one man, the spirit of humanity, the conflicting ambiguity and debate of philosophical differences between right and wrong/good and evil, but translates it to a larger platform, larger scope and with ENDER'S GAME, the universe, an a universe far beyond just our galaxy of the Milky Way.
ENDER'S GAME is by no means an easy book to adapt to the big screen. As Hood himself notes, "The tricky thing about the book, of course, is that it's a very internal story. The author writes beautifully about what the character is thinking and feeling and translating that into film is not always so easy. Crucial to Hood and producers Bob Orci and Gigi Pritzker was "how we could capture the sprit of the book using our medium." Where "the book might need two or three paragraphs to describe what a character is feeling., with great actors like Harrison Ford or Sir Ben Kingsley or Viola Davis or our young actors, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, you can get in a second off of a great reaction shot, a great deal of information about what the character is feeling. But you have to great actors to achieve that." And great actors who deliver great performances is exactly what ENDER'S GAME has, starting with Asa Butterfield in the title role.
Literally scouring the globe and auditioning hundreds of young boys for the role of Ender, the concerns for the right actor were monumental. According to Gavin Hood, "The emotional demands of a young actor in this movie were enormous. The subtleties that he would need to convey were enormous. We saw some wonderful young actors but not all of them could deliver up against Harrison Ford. And Asa [Butterfield] could." There are no words to adequately describe the pathos that Butterfield brings to Ender. I fell in love with his purity and innocence with "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" but I believe it had to be Marty Scorsese's work with him in "Hugo" that really prepared him for a role like Ender, as Butterfield goes toe-to-toe against Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley unflinchingly. But, where Butterfield soars is with nuanced subtleties be they physical through eyes or a slight flinch or, as with Butterfield, in confrontational moments, Ender's forehead always breaks out in a little sweat. As regimented as the young actors are with their military training, Hood still captures moments that remind us these are at heart still children. It adds to the metaphor of this whole thing being a game, a child's game (okay, a 21st century high tech child's video game) but also strengthens the dichotomy and ambiguity about war, co-existence with other species, etc.
When it comes to Colonel Graff, it didn't take much to get Harrison Ford back into space. Unfamiliar with the book, Ford's first experience with ENDER'S GAME was the script. "I thought it was an interesting subject that I hadn't seen in film. I saw an interesting character that was responsible for supporting some questions about responsibility and the military and about relationships between young people and [the military/authority]. . .The themes are responsibilities, individual responsibilities. The leadership capacities, what the military does to create leadership capacity, but this is a strange situation here. We're talking about a world government meeting the threat of an alien invasion." As Graff, Ford is like ice giving him a controlled intensity with an underlying obsession to win (in that respect much like Han Solo). There is no room for emotion. However, there are moments where one can sense an almost paternal feeling towards Ender but in a flash, it's gone, and the cold commander is back. Nicely done. Like Butterfield, Ford is unflinching and every bit the commander of a battle school that one would expect and anticipate.
Sir Ben Kingsley provides and interesting dynamic as the henna-faced Mazer Rackham, giving Rackham this edge of seething and boiling just under the surface. As comes as no surprise, Kingsley plays it close to the vest, and keeps you guessing as to what side of the fence he's on. The nuance and edge that this gives the character and in turn, the subtext of Rackham's mystery and chemistry with Ender is stimulatingly effective.
I have long adored Moises Arias. Always able to add a smart-ass touch to things, great with physical comedy, he plays on his diminutive stature through jokes and/or attitude. As Bonzo, Ender's toughest competitor in school, Arias goes through the roof with hard-ass, vindictive, hatred. On the flip side, Aramis Knight just brings a smile to your face every time he comes on screen. As Bean, he retains more of the "child within" than anyone else. He is a constant reminder to us all and just elevates the tone in every scene. Abigail Breslin is, of course, a delight as Ender's sister Valentine.
Hailee Steinfeld is rock solid as Petra and her chemistry with Butterfield is believable. The loyalty and friendship between the two is refreshing and helps root the story, adding depth to Ender. While the Ender-Petra dynamic is a kinda-sorta romance, to Hood it's important to remember that this is a military environment and "we obviously didn't want to, nor could we take [any relationship] further. . .What I like about it, is that in the midst of the harshness, there's a need for gentleness and for compassion and frankly, friendship. I think that given their young ages, I think that Hailee and Asa delivered beautifully on this genuine, kind, amusing, intelligent friendship.
With Major Gwen Anderson, Viola Davis brings a tender maternal touch to the meld. A wonderful counter-play to Ford. However, Anderson's character more or less disappears without resolution; a small, but noticeable hole in the grand scheme of the film. A true delight is Nonso Anozie as Sergeant Dap. Quickly turning into one of my favorite actors thanks to ENDER'S GAME and the new tv series "Dracula", Anozie is delicious. Never playing Dap as a one-note character, there is texture and arc. Particularly touching is a scene where Ender asks the tough demanding drill sergeant if he thinks Ender will be able to lead, if people will respond and obey his commands. Dap merely salutes him. Brought a tear to my eye.
When writer/director Gavin Hood talks about his cast, there is great pride and humility in his tone. "Once you structure the script in ways that the conflict is fluid and the reactions should follow, you need actors that can really deliver on those reactions. I think we were very fortunate to get the kind of cast that we got because the layers of context within this movie would not be easy to reveal without a cast as good."
The philosophies addressed by the book are excellently translated by Hood not only for the screen, but compacted and updated for 21st century relevance. While the line of good/evil and the moral debates about winning at all costs versus how you achieve the win have gone on back to the days of Alexander the Great (as reflected by his writings), with the passage of time, those debates challenge and push the envelope and the era, and always because of one man's personal journey and philosophy or conflict. Here, Hood clearly shows us the generational differences of thinking with Graff and Ender - Graff endured one war and knows what's at stake; Ender has only heard about the war but never experienced it and thus has a more hopeful open mindset. The discussion that this sets of within one's own mind is crystalizing.
In adapting the book, Hood cleans up the superfluous character subplots and hones in on Ender and his immediate relationships. Ender is the axle of the wheel and Graff, Rackham, Valentine, Petra, Bean, Bonzo, are the spokes attached to him. Hood keeps the focus on Ender and his internal questioning based on his uber-intelligence. Key is also compacting a six year time span in the book to that of a year or so in the film. Making the film even more relevant for the 21st today's mores, Hood does gender flips in characters between the book and the film, notably Viola Davis who goes from hard ass male instructor to the softer female psych.
When it comes to creating visuals, Hood tapped some of the best in the business, starting with cinematographer Donald McAlpine. Together they create a world of such grandeur and scope that it is heart-stopping at times. The crown jewel of the piece is the lensing of the Battle Room. When the doors open and we find everyone in zero-gravity, the beauty is breathtaking with a visual purity thanks to the tetrix designs within the sphere and a use of light that appears timeless, elegant, serene - a fantastic visual dichotomy considering that battle unfolds within this hamster-like sphere. An interesting and effective technique employed by Hood and McAlpine was creating sets with lighting built into them is always an effective tool. Danny Boyle did it with his sci-fi film "Sunshine" to wonderful result. Same goes for ENDER'S GAME. While a fantastical and often ethereal setting, built-in lighting gives a heightened sense of organic reality not to mention creating lovely play of light and shadows. This is also one film that really benefits from shooting digitally as we get the slick cool iciness of space contrasted with the blaze of a burning sun on a burned out planet and the green blue skied lushness of Earth. That slick coolness is essential to the whole outer space, high tech video game sensibility, not to mention allowing for more metaphoric nuance.
Production design of Sean Haworth and Ben Procter goes hand-in-hand and is equally impressive from a visual standpoint. The design of the training/command ship is well thought out - use of pops of color is telling - yellow, green, red (caution for the newbies, green for the Salamanders led by hard-charging Bonzo, and red for the Dragons screaming danger). All is prescient, telling, effective, even down to lighting in the corridors of each team.
Adding a final element of reality to the production is the training that each of the young actors underwent at NASA Space Camp learning everything from physical discipline to space station life to working in zero-gravity. The actors - including Harrison Ford - do their own wire work which is beyond impressive within the "Battle Room" zero-gravity scenes. The icing on the cake is actual lensing in some unused NASA facilities.
There is no end to the beauty and intensity of ENDER'S GAME. WOW!
Written and Directed by Gavin Hood based on the novel by Orson Scott Card.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld,
Abigail Breslin, Moises Arias, Nonzo Anozie