I just saw the movie Ender’s Game at a pre-screening and I have a lot tangential thoughts to share.
[Hailee Steinfeld & Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game, 2013]
It was nice to take a crew of fellow science fiction aficionados to see this movie. [Go ahead and call us nerds, we don’t mind.] Many of them had read the book and I haven’t so it was also nice to be surprised by the story. My co-watchers tell me the film is faithful to the book, but in broad strokes, rushing some of the training and missing out on the character development and team building that happens among the cadets. Also, unlike the books, the aliens are not referred to as “buggers.”
The story centers around an interstellar conflict with an ant-like people from a not-too-distant planet. They invaded Earth before and were only narrowly defeated so our leadership have determined that training children in military tactics is the best method of staving off another invasion. Okay. Sure.
Ender Wiggin is picked for the training and advances quickly, chosen by Col. Graff to hopefully become the leader of the preemptive military strike against the “Formics”–a name, which by the way, makes the part of my brain that dreams in French start singing this French nursery rhyme … as fourmi is French for ant because Latin names and blah-blah-blah. The nursery rhyme distracted me.
Ender is a young teen and as depicted by British actor Asa Butterfield a brilliant sociopath-in-training. Butterfield’s American accent slipped a few times, taking me out of story, but otherwise I thought his performance was flawless. He had a lot to carry with this movie and he was terrific in it.
The visual effects are gorgeous. I think a lot of studios have come to realize that to draw people to the movie theater they’re going to have to give them a lot of bang for their buck and give them something they can’t get at home. It’s clear that a good amount of the large budget went into the visual effects. This story is well suited for the crucial international marketing as it doesn’t require too much dialogue or heavy exposition. Digital Domain has put forth some stunning work and as I understand it, they’re trying to earn from this film through profit-sharing rather than being paid up front in the traditional manner. I think the fact that they’re profit sharing in the success of the film means they have skin in the game and it shows in the final product. The movie is beautiful to behold. The scenes set in zero gravity at the battle school are a treat. I enjoyed those more than even the snazzier space-travel sequences, although they looked great, too. The zero gravity chamber looks like good clean fun. Like a game of paint ball without the mess.
The music occasionally reminded me of the credit sequence from Game of Thrones, but that might have been my fourmi-addled brain playing tricks on me.
Another strong point is the casting. I love a good chameleon actor and Viola Davis is one of my current favorites. It was great to see her in a meaty part but also disappointing that her character disappears before the critical ending and is never heard from again. I was frustrated by this loose end.
These are difficult roles for actors since they’re playing on military tropes where they’re not allowed to show emotion or deep connection and they’re often acting against green screens and effects. I don’t know how it is in the book, but this coldness among the young actors seemed like a misguided choice for the film. Military-level loyalty is forged on deep human connection. Comrade-in-arms depend on each other for their lives. They exist together in an intense situations that makes them into a family. That these soldiers are children would only make those links tighter. The film depiction sails Ender through the training much too quickly, and although I understand he’s meant to remain aloof and apart in order to be a leader, I didn’t believe he would remain so disconnected from his teammates. I think we’re supposed to believe that they have bonded by the end but it happens much too abruptly.
The one serious problem I had with the casting was the biggest star power in the film, Harrison Ford. It pains me to say that he is miscast, but he is. He’s supposed to depict a military man with the ability to be a father figure to the young soldiers and instead he comes across as a mellow hippie uncle dropping by the base for a visit.
Okay, so I alluded to this once before and I have to confess that there are some actors I have a hard time reviewing in a neutral manner. Back around the release of the second Indian Jones movie my mother made the stunning realization that the actor she’d seen so many times over the years was the nerdy boy from high school she’d declined to continue dating because “he was a bad kisser” [read: too liberal with use of the tongue].
Take heart, awkward teens, some of you may look better as you get older. Exhibit A:
[Harrison Ford… back when my mother said he joined drama club to be near her and the other cute girls.]
So, when I see Mr. Ford, I think of my mother and the suburbs and teens making out at a sock hop in Park Ridge, Illinois and I cannot CANNOT suspend that disbelief. Maybe he’s great in the role? I don’t know. To me he didn’t seem military at all.
Another casting choice that was disappointing but I could overlook was Ben Kingsley as a military hero. When he showed up in Ender’s room with Tā moko I was delighted.
A Maori in a scifi movie! I’ve worked with men who had the moko and I couldn’t wait for Kingsley to speak so I could hear his attempt at the Kiwi accent I have grown to love. He nails it. As always. The man is a wonder. But as much as I love him I do wish they’d cast an actual Maori actor in the role. I realize they would have lost name recognition but they would have scored street cred. Also, Kingsley is spry but not physically imposing the way a proper Maori warrior is meant to be.
Kingsley plays a character named Mazer Rackham. Whatever one might say about the author of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (and plenty of unflattering stuff has been written lately because he’s an obvious douche canoe), he’s got a gift for character names. This is something J. K. Rowling is very good at as well. Some writers are just good at naming and I adore the name Mazer Rackham. Much like Col. Graff, it is unsubtle and tells you plenty about the person. Cuts like a razor. Gruff old leader. Ender will… end things. Yeah, Card is a card. He’s not subtle, but it’s fun. I mean, it’s fun if you can overlook the constant rationalization to wage war as a necessary evil.
As a pacifistic person, I have a problem with this rationale for war and find it both interesting and disturbing that Ender’s Game is, purportedly, required reading among the American Marine recruits. But as a fan of good science fiction spectacle? The ‘splosions look nifty!
Edited to add that the more I think about Ender’s training the more it reminds me of this scene from The Court Jester: