Friday, November 15, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: Ender's Game

Ender's Game was written and directed by Gavin Hood, who's previous film was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Yikes!). Maybe he was just having a bad year back in 2009, because this is a definite improvement over that steaming tur, er that film. The film is based on the novel by controversial sci-fi author Orson Scott Card. 

It was also co-produced by Roberto Orci. Jesus, must his ham-handed, greasy fingerprints be all over everything I see at the theater and on TV these days? 

The film won its opening weekend, but overall has performed lower than expected, grossing less than half of its $110 million budget (as of this writing). I wonder if all the controversy over writer Orson Scott Card's radical opinions against homosexuality might have hurt the film? There've been many protests and boycotts of the movie, which may have cut into theater attendance.

Normally I wouldn't give two hoots about an actor or writer's beliefs and wouldn't bother to even bring them up, but Card has insisted on trumpeting his nutsy cuckoo views so loudly that I think they're worth a mention. 

So what's all the hubbub about? Let's just say Card has a slight problem with teh gays. In 1990 he stated that homosexual behavior should be outlawed and enforced "to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society." Wow. He's since retracted that statement, claiming it was said "in the context of the times," which of course is code for "Gosh, I didn't know people might be offended by my extreme views and boycott my work."

Then in 2008 he opened his noise hole yet again, saying he regarded "any government that would attempt to recognize same-sex marriage as a mortal enemy that he would act to destroy (!!!)." Um… I'm no expert, but doesn't that statement sound perilously close to treason?

He's also said that gays who call him a homophobe are implying that he's mentally ill for opposing them, which sounds like the stuff Spock said to make that android's head explode.

He's said more, but that's enough to give you an idea of his views. 

If you need further evidence that Card is just plain nuts, consider this: before Harrison Ford was cast as Colonel Graff, Card actually considered changing the character to a female, to be played by a "dry comic" such as Janeane Garofalo or Rosie O'Donnell (!!!). Oy vey iz mir!

As with all movies, the producers had to make some changes from the novel. Among the major ones:

• In the film Ender is bullied by two different students. He beats his schoolmate Stilson and severely cripples his commanding officer Bonzo. In the book Ender actually killed them both.

I'm assuming this was changed in the film to make Ender a more sympathetic character, as well as to avoid the disturbing image of one child killing another.

• In the film Ender is twelve years old and attends Battle School for just a short time before rising to a command position. The book began when Ender was six, and he attended Battle School for six years. 

I understand this change and am OK with it; if they followed the book to the letter they'd have needed two different actors to play Ender, and no one wanted that.

• In the film Ender has a close relationship with his younger sister Valentine, who's kind and gentle, but fears his older brother Peter, who's a genuine sociopath. They had large and very important parts in the book (that helped shape Ender's psyche) but their roles are quite small in the film. In fact their screen time is so short one wonders why they bothered to include them at all. 

• Late in the film it's revealed that the Formics came to Earth to colonize, not to conquer, and once we drove them back they never attacked again. Earth however couldn't leave well enough alone and insisted on wiping them out, which paints humanity as the true enemy.

This is an interesting and thought provoking concept; too bad it was given about fifteen seconds worth of screen time. Because we gotta spend more time on action and explosions! To hell with that thinking' stuff!.


The Plot:
It's the future! Aliens attack Earth, devastating the planet. Earth forces get the bright idea to recruit children as commanders because they're superior at strategy and blowing up things.

Ender Wiggin is enrolled in the Battle School and manipulated into becoming the perfect killing machine. He and his team destroy the alien race in a computer simulation, but surprise! It wasn't really a simulation after all and he wiped out an entire race for reals.

• For once we get a futuristic film that doesn't take place just fifteen years from now (one of my many pet peeves)!  The actual timeline is vague, although some have stated the Formics' first attack on Earth happens in 2086.

Since Mazer Rackham was instrumental in the defeat of the Formics and he appears to be around fifty five or sixty years old in Ender's time, I'm guessing the film takes place around 2120 (if the 2086 date is correct, of course).  

• The zero g battle training scenes were very well done and convincing. I almost believed the kids were really weightless. They also looked (to my eyes at least) like they were 3D even though the film was in 2D, if that makes any sense.

• The idea of using children to command armies and plan battles because their minds are more agile than an adult's and better at strategy is an interesting one. Any grown up who's ever played a video game with a child and been soundly trounced will understand the concept.

But a concept is one thing. Making it a reality is quite another. How did the use of children as leaders of vast armies ever possibly come about? The film makes a half-hearted and unconvincing attempt at an explanation, but this is something that really needed to be fleshed out a bit more. If the audience doesn't buy this idea then the whole film's going to fail.

• I'm sure it wasn't supposed to be funny, but I couldn't help but laugh at Ender's personal philosophy. He says, "In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. And then, in that very moment when I love them.... I destroy them."

OK, the first part of that quote is a pretty Jesus-y thing to say. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I recognize it as a main tenet of Christianity. It's the destroying part that makes me laugh.
• It's probably unavoidable, but parts of this film were very reminiscent of Starship Troopers (the book, more than the film). The attack against the Formics' mothership is also very similar to the one in Independence Day.

This is what happens when a book inspires filmmakers but doesn't become a movie itself until decades later.

• Speaking of the battle with the Formics… They attack Earth with several large motherships surrounded by hundreds of thousands of small fighter craft. It looks like there's no hope for our planet, as we're vastly outnumbered and out-technologied. Then Mazer Rackham flies his fighter plane right up the mothership's bung hole, causing it to explode. Instantly the hundreds of thousands of alien fighters sputter to a stop, hold for a second and then plummet from the sky.

When are these alien invaders going to realize that it's a terrible, terrible idea for their fighter craft to get their power from the mothership? Take out the mothership and all half million fighters are disabled as well. What kind of battle strategy is that? Here's an idea-- give each fighter its own gas tank! That way when the mothership gets taken out (as it always does), the fighters can keep going for a while.

• I really wish filmmakers would realize that there's a limit as to how many moving objects the human eye can take in. The battle scenes between the Earth and Formics fleets are nothing but disorienting swirls of blurred motion as literally hundreds of thousands of ships hurl across the screen at speed too fast for our eyes to register.

I couldn't tell you what was going on in most of the space battle scenes. There were just too many things moving onscreen to get more than the vaguest impression of what was going on. I'm growing very weary of such scenes.

Yes, it's quite impressive that your computers have the processing power needed to move a hundred thousand ships around simultaneously, but that doesn't mean it makes for good cinema. Think about the Death Star attack scenes in Return Of The Jedi (the original 1983 version, that is). Same concept, but much fewer ships so we could actually tell what was happening. What a concept! 

• Ender is promoted to Salamander Army, which is headed by Commander Bonzo Madrid (played by Moises Arias, of Hanna Montana fame!!!), a diminutive little psychopath with an overblown ego. Bonzo is the story's Designated Asshole™, and seemingly only acts that way because the script says so. 

I think any time there's a film about adolescents attending some kind of special school (think Harry Potter), there's a law that says at least one of the students must inexplicably be an jerk and serve as a roadblock to the main character's progress.

• Fairyland?

• The scenes of Ender playing a manipulative psychological video game feature primitive 1999 era graphics. 

I'm thinking the filmmakers deliberately made these graphics a little on the crude side to help sell the idea that they're scenes from a game. If they made them perfectly realistic (as they no doubt would look a hundred years from now) it might confuse the audience as to what they were actually watching.

• Right before one of the zero g battle simulations, a member of Ender's team falls out of his bunk and sprains his ankle. He then has to bow out of the drill.

Um… why would a sprained ankle be an issue in a zero g environment, where you're basically flying? Even if the kid's ankle was throbbing with pain, do what my movie-going pal KW Monster suggested-- shoot his ankle with one of the freeze-ray guns. That would stiffen it up and deaden it at the same time, and he could visit the infirmary after the exercise. Problem solved!

• Ben Kingsley is a fine actor, but his New Zealand accent leaves a lot to be desired (I used to have a Kiwi boss, so I know of what I speak). Maybe it's been diluted by years of living off Earth?

• I hope you were lucky and your local cineplex didn't display this version of the poster in the lobby. You know, the one with the tagline above the title that shouts out the goddamned plot twist at the end of the movie.

• During the final battle Ender orchestrates an all-out attack on the Formics' home world. He commands dozens of destroyers and hundreds of thousands of small fighter ships. 

Are there actually people in all those fighters? Or are they drones? I'm assuming there's a pilot in each one, but it's never really spelled out either way. We never really see any members of the military outside the Battle School.

If there are pilots in each fighter, I wonder how they feel about being ordered to their deaths by a twelve year old?

• The film seemed to wrap up things up awfully fast. It was like the director was running out of film and had to end things really quickly. I've seen episodes of Star Trek: Voyager that had more drawn out endings.

• During the end voiceover, Ender says he's been made a full admiral (!) and "left to his own devices (!!!)." Would any army really do that? Promote a twelve year old to such a position and then just turn him loose? Weren't Colonel Graff and Major Anderson worrying about his mental stability just a short time ago?

• After he's made an admiral, Ender goes inside one of the Formics hives on Eros. There he finds the last surviving Formic, who's watching over a lone queen egg. He promises to take the egg and find a new home planet for it (thus ensuring a whole series of sequels).

Um… wouldn't aiding the enemy that almost destroyed your planet and promising to restart their race be considered treason? According to definition, treason is when a citizen's actions help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the parent nation. Sounds like a match to me!

I get that the initial battle with the Formics was a mistake and they have no intention of wiping out humanity, but Earth forces don't know that. They'd likely consider Ender's actions to be on the treasonous side.

An interesting, if somewhat cliched outer space war film. I give it a B.

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