Mark Reviews Movies

Ender's Game

ENDER'S GAME

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Khylin Rhambo, Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material)

Running Time: 1:54

Release Date: 11/1/13


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 31, 2013

By the end of Ender's Game, it's clear that the movie has no affinity for the fascistic worldview it has been depicting, but we have to get through a lot of rah-rah rationalization and glorification before the movie reaches its point. It's a problem of narrative, character, and the marriage of the two in the material.

The ultimate point lies in third-act reversal of perception and expectation that changes everything the movie's youngest characters believe they know. It's strange that the twist is a surprise to them, given that what happens and how it transpires is sort of an inevitability; their shock seems to be only a matter of being denied the time to prepare for the event. There's something dishonest about their looks of despair and displays of outrage because, watching them in that moment, one can only wonder, "Well, what did they think they were getting into with all of this?"

That's because the movie, written and directed by Gavin Hood (based on the novel by Orson Scott Card), has made such a fine argument for the necessity of the characters' actions. It's not a matter of it being a morally right argument; anyone with a basic sense of right and wrong can see the inherent folly and highly questionable ethics of the story's premise, which finds a militaristic world in the future in which child soldiers are trained for intergalactic warfare against a foe that is both not human (big, ant-like creatures called Formics) and, according to the top brass, inhuman.

We know the drill, painfully illustrated throughout history and always with devastating results: There's an enemy out there that is not like us and, therefore, must be destroyed, and no matter what we do, we are on the side of right because our cause is justified by the mere existence of the others. Do not question it.

The children here are loyal in that regard. They do not question the reasons for imminent war. They are trained not to. They have been raised with stories of an invasion by an alien force decades before these children were born—of millions killed, heroic acts of derring-do, and victory. They have been told it will happen again; it is only a matter of time.

Of all the movie's child characters, only the movie's protagonist Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) comes to the closest to questioning the system, but he is too enamored with its allure to really work up much of a fight against it. He is, according to his mentor and later commander Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), special (The repeated shots of Graff standing to observe the actions of his hand-picked protégé with slack-mouthed, wide-eyed awe show he truly believes that). What young boy with dreams of being something great when he grows up—a matter of a few years at most in this world—doesn't want to hear that?

Ender is conflicted but only in terms of his emotions. He has no problem developing and implementing a strategy that will incapacitate an enemy, hence preventing future attacks, but he does feel guilty that he often comes to a rage in order to do so. The implication is that he wishes he were more the sociopathic type, able to dole out attacks without having to deal with the emotional baggage that accompanies them, or at least that's what he believes he should be in order to succeed in Battle School on his path to becoming a potential savior for the human race.

The rationale for employing children in such a manner is questionable (Viola Davis plays a military psychologist who is the only character to actually vocalize this thought, and Ben Kingsley plays a character whose existence forces us to question the hero's importance). They are, Graff argues, better at higher-level problem-solving. What it really amounts to is that kids are better at playing games, which is really—in between Ender's attempts to rally his classmates under his leadership through a series of calculated interpersonal interactions (i.e., making friends with the right people, challenging authority, standing up to a bully no one likes)—all they do.

Training for cadets involves a game that is like a cross between freeze tag and laser tag. The combatants, divided into teams, shoot at each other with blasters that freeze the part of the body that is hit by the beam; each team tries to eliminate the other or reach the opposing team's gate. The catch is that the game takes place in a dome—part of a bigger ship orbiting Earth—that creates a zero-gravity environment. The game is simple enough to understand, but the actual playing of it leaves us in the dark about whatever strategy is unfolding. It's more of a visual distraction, with the twirling bodies moving every which way in long shots that emphasize the scope of the space and the stunning view surrounding it.

The second game, which takes place when Ender and his comrades move up to Command School, is less involving and has Ender leading his soldiers in a series of simulated battles with the alien forces. By the time this section comes around, Ender's Game grows repetitive quickly, and without any genuinely sympathetic characters (or even ones with common sense) to stand behind, the movie's ultimate lesson in compassion feels like a false afterthought.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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