Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game review

2013 has been quite the year for science fiction. First, we had Tom Cruise's Oblivion, a decent movie that proceeded to disappoint at the box office. Then, the list went on with Star Trek Into Darkness, After Earth, Pacific Rim, Elysium, and finally, the mega-hit Gravity. I've seen all but one of those films (After Earth) and I can say with confidence that two are great and two are very good. So, all in all, it's been a great year for science fiction. Now, we have a sixth addition to the 2013 sci-fi list: Ender's Game. This is an adaptation of Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel about an intergalactic war between humans and an alien species. For years, the book was deemed unfilmable, with a zero-gravity battle room and loads of special effects. Somehow, Gavin Hood and his team of visual wizards have pulled it off, and finally put Ender's Game on the big screen. Visually speaking, they did quite the job, as Ender's Game is at times, one of the best looking films of the year. Too bad they skimped out on the details of the story and the characters. Ender's Game ends up being an enjoyable style over substance diversion that has hints of greatness, but is held back by an insane lack of character development and an uneven plot.

Ender's Game is the story of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young boy on a futuristic Earth. Ender is incredibly smart, and is eventually recruited by the IF to go to Battle School. Years ago, an alien war between humans and the Formics. Earth was nearly ravaged, but thanks to Mazer Rackham's (Ben Kingsley) bravery, we temporarily won the war. The IF (International Fleet) is certain that the Formics will return, so they begin to recruit gifted young children to prepare for future war. Ender is one of those children, recruited by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to potentially be a future commander. Ender is bullied, but as he goes through battle school, he becomes respected, and possibly the hero that Earth is waiting for. 

This year's science fiction films have been pretty spectacular. Gravity is a masterpiece, Star Trek Into Darkness grows on me with each rewatch, Elysium is gritty entertainment and Pacific Rim is one heck of a popcorn blockbuster. Going into Ender's Game, I highly doubted that this film could top any of those sci-fi flicks. And for a while, namely the first two-thirds of the film, Ender's Game surprisingly holds its own. It's a very entertaining picture for most of the film, with echoes of Harry Potter, and the much more recent Gravity. It just has two major flaws that practically take down the film. It's only kept afloat by its technical brilliance and overall entertainment value. 

Despite being entertaining for about three quarters of the film, the flaws in Ender's Game are apparent from the beginning. This is a film that has a serious lack of character development, firstly. You never truly get to know or understand any of the characters in the film beyond a one sentence description. While I'm not a critic who needs to connect emotionally to a film, I still need a little more about the characters than what this film gives us. There are characters that we don't understand at all. Viola Davis portrays Major Anderson as a compassionate army officer. Too bad I don't know a thing about her character. Seeing Harrison Ford in a science fiction film again is one of the inherent pleasures of this film. Too bad that his character is a one-note cliche. And even characters that seem to be important, such as Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld) and Bonesaw (Moises Arias), never amount to anything. You never connect to the characters in Ender's Game on an emotional level and you really don't even know a thing about them. You don't even quite understand Ender, the protagonist of the story. 

Ender's Game clocks in at 114 minutes, which is less than two hours. I've never read the book on which this film is based on, but that was obviously way too compact of a runtime. Ender's Game is so dense with plot, and features so many characters, that you either have to cut things out, or move through the plot very fast. Director Gavin Hood opts for the latter choice, and the movie suffers the consequences. It moves from point A to point B to point C in a matter of minutes, and its breakneck pace doesn't allow any of the characters or the situations to breathe. The first forty-five minutes are pretty stationary, and they're the best part of the film. After that, it's still entertaining, but the movement of the plot is not fluid or natural.

In addition, there are a ton of useless characters in this film. I think that Petra Arkanian was meant to be sort of a love interest for Ender, but I couldn't tell, simply because you never get to truly know her. On top of that, there's the fact that Petra has about ten minutes of screen time. Also, Ben Kingsley appears late in this film, and literally has no other purpose but to bring up a plot point, one that simply allows the movie to keep going. 

All of those things make for a movie that is less than wholly satisfying. But I can almost guarantee you, those problems will not bother you for most of the film. I was bothered by the lack of character development at times, and was definitely annoyed by the lack of detail and fast pace, but it wasn't until I stepped back that I realized how truly lacking it was in certain aspects. If this was a two and a half hour movie, I can guarantee you, it would be better. Hood had a good framework, he just didn't execute it in the way he should have and left way too much to the imagination. 

The actors are pretty much solid across the board. Asa Butterfield is a good younger actor and one that was right for the role of Ender. Abigail Breslin plays his sister and she's a completely non-essential character, but she's alright. Harrison Ford is actually great in this film, in my opinion. I can't tell yet if it's just the joy of seeing him in a true sci-fi film, or if he actually was that good. Anyways, I enjoyed his performance. Moises Arias and Ben Kingsley might be the exceptions to the quality of the cast. Arias is completely annoying and Kingsley does that weird British accent. Plus, he has nothing to add to the plot. 

However, despite all the problems with story and pacing, Ender's Game is an enjoyable film. I was truly entertained from beginning to the three-quarters mark, with the last section being slightly disappointing. The first part of the movie with the kids at battle school is pretty great, and it definitely reminded me of Harry Potter. There was definite chemistry between Butterfield and some of the unknowns who played the other kids. 

And finally, Ender's Game cannot be discussed without mentioning the visual effects. Compared to Gravity, they don't quite stand up. But they actually come really close. The visuals looked cheap and generic from the trailers but they are surprisingly distinct and are very well executed. The visual design and effects of the film contribute to the film substantially and manage to keep you engaged during the parts where Hood is skimping on the details. 

In the end, despite having a large amount of problems with it, I liked Ender's Game in terms of entertainment value. It was a serviceable sci-fi film and one that will make for a fun trip to the theaters for most people. I just know it could be so much better. Watching this film, it was clear that there was definitely a lot of potential for Ender's Game as a film. All the elements were there for a great film adaptation but Hood could only deliver a serviceable one. If you don't care about character and story development, you're sure to enjoy this film, because it looks great and is very engaging. It just has a lot of problems that keep it from being a good movie. It's stuck at decent and can't get out. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                          (6.5/10)

1 comment:

  1. Do not agree. I think it is one of the best sifi ever an in depth study into leadership dynamics, a concept that we managers are still struggling to define.