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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Review of ENDER'S GAME (the movie)

For reasons beyond my control I wound up going in to see Ender's Game more unaware and "in the dark" than any movie that readily comes to mind.  I've long known who the main actors were and who they were playing, but other than that, including who was scoring the thing?

Nope.  Nada.  And this, the film adaptation of  Orson Scott Card's novel that has been one of my very most favorite books since first reading it in 1990.  A novel that has become not only a bona-fide science-fiction classic but one of modern literature as a whole.  I should have been total fanboy for this thing from the beginning.

Instead, I went in as cold as one is apt to be in this day and age.  Hopefully, it is a trick that I could pull off again...

...because I was absolutely delighted and thrilled with how Ender's Game came through as a movie!

It's a hundred years or so from now, and Earth is still reeling from an attack decades earlier by an insectoid race called the Formics (sometimes "the Buggers").  Humanity barely won and swore that it would never happen again.  To that end, there has been an international effort to find the best and brightest children for grooming into the commanders needed for mankind's next encounter with the Formics.

Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one of those children.  And after believing he has washed-out from the program, he discovers that he has passed with flying colors and offered admission to the Battle School by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford).  Ender accepts, and leaves the only world he has ever known (including his loving sister Valentine, beautifully played by Abigail Breslin) so that he might one day be among those who will save it.

If you've read Ender's Game, you're aware of what is really going on with Ender.  If you haven't and are going in to see the movie unfamiliar with the story, you'll find out soon enough.  I thought it made an elegant and thoroughly compelling translation to the big screen: how Ender is being shaped and formed by forces beyond his control, whether he likes it or not.  And Asa Butterfield was absolutely the best actor for the role.  He brings to Ender all of the strengths, the vulnerabilities, the empathy and the guild that define this character.  It's positively amazing how much of that Butterfield conveys and projects just through his eyes.  Now, that is acting!

Harrison Ford is pretty much everything I imagined Colonel Hyrum Graff would and should be, and maybe even better realized than my original estimation of the character (courtesy of Ford's trademark delivery).  Hailee Steinfield is terrific as Petra: the Salamander Army member who takes Ender under her wing in defiance of Bonso (Mois├ęs Arias, projecting a brutality that would have made his character an unstoppable juggernaut in the Hunger Games).  And despite how he only turns up in the latter half of the film, Ben Kingsley makes an indelible mark as Mazer Rackham: the legendary half-Maori pilot who almost single-handedly stopped the Formics in the last war.

Ender's Game takes a few major liberties with the original novel, but they are handled with such grace that one might forget they are even there.  To me, the most obvious departure is the complete absence of the subplot about Valentine and elder brother Peter (played in the movie by Jimmy Pinchak) using an Internet chatroom to wend their way toward becoming internationally-acclaimed commentators and ultimately world leaders.  Ender's fear and resentment of Peter is also, in some ways, downplayed significantly.  There seems to be no "unable to travel faster than light" which as those familiar with the novels, becomes a critical factor in the story (the movie implies that faster-than-light is now the norm, which could be a problem for any sequel films).  And I thought that Bean (Aramis Knight) was a character who demanded much more screen time and attention.  Bean was always my favorite of Ender's army, and he needed to be fleshed-out more in the film to convey the kind of spunky street urchin he's known to be.

On the other hand, Ender's Game the movie brings to life some concepts that I had honestly thought would have never made it past drafting the script.  The Giant's Game is in there, beautifully and violently brought to life (the Giant is voiced by director Gavin Hood, by the way).  We also get the confrontation between Ender and Bonso (which ends different from the book, but I can kinda understand why that is).

I found the special effects in Ender's Game to be, if not ground-breaking and remarkable, at least the component that the story needed it to be.  In fact, on that basis I would say that the effects surpassed what I was anticipating from this movie.  The Battle Room sequences are a thrill to behold, and will no doubt be what many kids (and not too few adults) will be dreaming of playing inside of.  And for all of their deadly intent, the Formics are an astounding... one dares even say beautiful... thing of pure alienness.  The Formics have long been one of the few elements of the Ender novel series that I couldn't quite focus my mind's eye on: they always seemed something that the "less you can conceive the better" approach works well with.  Even after watching the movie I still have that vibe: yeah, we can see them finally, but they are still something beyond human perception (which given what the themes of the overall story of Ender's life entail, is how it should be).

Ender's Game the movie is the adaptation that many of us hoped we would get and is even better than what we were expecting.  It absolutely gets my recommendation, and I'm already planning on catching it again while it's playing in the theaters.

Oh, and about the orchestral score for Ender's Game?  It was composed by none other than Steve Jablonsky.  It might be his best work to date by far, and I thought it was perfect for the tone and the themes of this story.  How much did I love Jablonsky's score?  I'm downloading it from iTunes even as I write this.


Brian Parker said...

Excellent review Chris! I just bought the score on iTunes too.

Cheers :)