Monday, November 4, 2013

Movie Review: 'Ender's Game' succeeds on several levels

This movie review was originally written for KPC Media Group's website and print newspapers. You can read the original review here. Reprinted with permission.

My mom always had a rule, which I still largely follow even as an adult: “You must read the book before you see the movie.”

It’s a good rule for kids, because it gets them to read - not that I needed any help on that front - but as an adult, it hasn’t always served me well.

Since the book is always better than the movie, a lot of times, reading the book before watching the movie leads to major disappointments.

I went into “Ender’s Game” prepared for the same. The book, written by Orson Scott Card and published in 1985, is a classic of military science fiction, and it’s a good read. It’s also a book, despite the fact that it takes place in the middle of a futuristic war in space, is structured mostly around the internal struggle of its main character, Ender Wiggin.

I liked reading the book, but I was incredibly skeptical that it could be made into a watchable, entertaining movie that still stayed true to the themes of the book.

It turns out “Ender’s Game” wasn’t as unfilmable as I thought it would be. In fact, it was quite the success, both as a standalone movie and as a book adaptation.

“Ender’s Game” follows Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a boy tapped by the International Military to train from a very young age to defeat a destructive race of aliens. Under the watchful eyes of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), Ender quickly rises through the ranks at the isolated, outer-space military training school he attends. He is pushed to exhibit the fierceness of his violent brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), and the empathy of his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin).

I was afraid that “Ender’s Game” was going to neuter the thought-provoking themes of the book, which takes a hard look at the morality of war, in favor of cool, wham-pow battle sequences. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie kept a lot of aspects of the book’s main themes. In fact, the movie was a little more subtle about asking the tough questions, as opposed to the hit-you-over-the-head nature of the book.
But, never fear, there are still some truly spectacular action sequences that are fun to watch and deserve a lot of praise. One of the centerpieces of the battle school is a zero-gravity globe where trainees float around among obstacles, shooting one another with guns that freeze their limbs. It’s fun to watch the kids floating around, and I was impressed with how seamless and real it seemed. Special effects have truly taken a step forward in the past few years, and it’s those leaps that allow good science fiction like “Ender’s Game” to be filmed. Even five years ago, it probably couldn’t have happened.

I was also pleased with how streamlined the plot of “Ender’s Game” was. One of the biggest problems with movie adaptations of books is that they suffer from bloat and pacing problems, because filmmakers try to stuff every scene from the book into the film. Screenwriter/director Gavin Hood is to be commended, then, because this is one of the slickest adaptations of a book I’ve seen on the big screen in years. Hood made the tough choices to take out several subplots - most notably, an interesting but ultimately marginal subplot about Ender’s siblings back on Earth. He also combined characters, changed relationships and condense time in order to make the story work as a movie. The movie clips along at a nice pace, without any of the awkward flow problems that are practically hallmarks of book adaptations. If I didn’t know it was a book adaptation, I doubt I would have been able to sense that “Ender’s Game” was adapted from another medium.

Despite all the expert writing, directing and adapting that happened to bring this movie together, though, “Ender’s Game” really hinges on its titular character. Ender is a complicated boy in a very difficult, strange situation, and casting the wrong kid in the role could have been a disaster. Thankfully, Asa Butterfield is a gem. He perfectly captures both Ender’s compassion and brutality, and is able to encapsulate those conflicting emotions and channel them into a raw, interesting performance.

“Ender’s Game” still isn’t a perfect film. The plot is deeply unsettling - it’s tough to watch preteens preparing to fight in a war - and I never feel like the story, either in the book or the movie, goes far enough to condemn some of the terrible things that happen in it. And even though the movie is a truly great adaptation of the book, it still doesn’t quite measure up to the source material. I was disappointed by the marginalization of a few characters, even though I understand why it happened, and as well-paced as it was, there were still some fairly important scenes that were hurried or glossed over.

Still, my only complaints are really little more than quibbles. “Ender’s Game” is an excellent piece of science fiction, and proof that, with a little work, you really can make a good book into a good movie.

Jenny’s Take: See it before it leaves theaters.

(Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material. Runs 114 minutes.)

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