This weekend my wife and I watched Ender's Game with some friends. The movie, based upon the Orson Scott Card novel of the same name, is set in Earth's future and is about a young man named Ender Wiggin who is in a military style school for gifted young people aspiring to be the next Commander of Earth's military forces in a space battle for survival against a bug like species known as the Formics.
While watching the movie I couldn't help but think about how applicable one of the major themes of this story is, and how those themes challenge us as humans regarding the various conflicts going on around the world right now in Ferguson, Gaza and Iraq with ISIS. Read the below section entitled "The Powerful" to see what I mean.
I will break down my review of Ender's Game into four sections: Overall, The Bad, The Good, and finally The Powerful.
Overall I would give the movie a 4 out of 5 on the Mountain Dew scale. As far as 'guy movies' go, it was pretty good. It's not quite to the level of the 'Die Hard' movies as far as explosions and such is concerned, but it's got some interesting action. It's a but of a higher concept sort of story though, so if you're not interested in using your brain a bit, then maybe this one isn't for you.
Sadly the dialogue suffered somewhat in this movie. It's not that the dialogue was "bad" exactly, it just wasn't all that good either. The movie stars Asa Butterfield in the title role of Ender Wiggin, and he is yet another in a long line of Euopean (UK) actors who try to mask their accent and talk like a vanilla American. Why this happens I do not know. Hugh Laurie as Dr. House would have been fine as an englishman curmudgeonly doctor, Simon Baker as Patrick Jane, could have been a Mentalist fraud from Australia, and Ender could have had an English accent. That or they could have just cast an American. I am not trying to be rude here, but forcing the kid to mask his accent just always sounded wrong, and there was nothing in the movie plot wise that required Ender to be American. I mean, most of the time he sounded as though he were talking through an oral retainer at best and at worst as though he were talking around a mouthful of carrots.
Among supporting cast of characters, there are two others who stand out in both the books and the movies. Bean, the like-able competition turned sidekick, and Petra, the girl sharpshooter who helps teach Ender combat techniques in the battle room are played capably by Aramis Knight and Hailee Stienfeld. However Stienfeld's portrayal of Petra, lacked the conviction and witty/snappy dialogue of her performance in True Grit. She did not come across as the tough combat veteran of the books, but rather a bit of a pale comparison. I don't think this is any reflection of her acting abilities, but rather the weak script and dialogue she was given. In her action scenes she does very well. Bean is also played adequately and while I think Knight did a fine job, the plot and screen play just doesn't give him much to actually DO in the film, so he comes across as too much of a tertiary character and not as Ender's one and only friend and ally and motivational force like he does in the book.
Ironically, dialogue is one of the main strengths of Ender's Game the novel. Card has, at times, received criticism for the book's "White Room" feel; meaning his limit of prose dedicated to description and setting. In the audiobook version I listened to, it concluded with a brief interview with Card himself, who discussed this. In the interview Card observed that he had always felt that Ender's Game should contain as little description as possible. He felt that although it was published as a novel, he always envisioned the story as being best told in audio format, or barring that, a play. Though he had many offers to turn it into a movie, he held back, always feeling that the Audiobook was actually the highest performance form of the story. That's why the lack of solid dialogue in Ender's Game the movie comes as such a surprise.
The CGI animation in the movie is stunning. From start to finish the animation studio outdid themselves. Between the simulations in the war games, the game with the giant and fairyland, the battle zone laser games, and the war simulations at the end of the movie, it was all eye catching, beautiful and intense. The Bugs especially were well done and animated, the queen at the end of the movie conveys a wonderful sci-fi alien nature, yet oddly a familiar feminine quality as well. The movie is worth watching for the CGI if nothing else.
Harrison Ford, does an incredible job as the dark, dedicated military zealot known as Colonel Graff. He is wonderful conveying Graff's determination and stop-at-nothing desire to do what he feels is right. So deep is his conviction that humanity must kill or be killed, he will sacrifice anything, even his own soul and humanity to protect Earth, and do what he believes is right.
In contrast to him, the Major, played by Viola Davis, believes in the necessity of their work but is unwilling to cross the line of becoming the mindless creatures she is fighting. Davis does a great job conveying an unyielding desire to look out for the physical and mental well being of the young people placed within her care.
Abigail Breslin plays Valentine, Ender's sister. Though she does not have many lines, and limited screen time, she conveys a deep, meaningful love for her little brother Ender, and a desire to see him safe and happy.
The most powerful element of the story is in its underlying message. Towards the beginning of the movie, Ender is getting bullied by someone stronger than him (a common theme of both his life, and the story as a whole). During the fight, Ender outsmarts his opponent, and beats him to the ground. When the opponent attempts to rise and continue the fight, Ender kicks him mercilessly in the abdomen over and over and over again. Later, when asked why he continued kicking the bully though he had already won the fight, Ender said: "I wanted to win all the other fights as well."
The meaning behind that cryptic message, is that Ender believed by truly beating his opponent to near death, the bully would never again attempt to threaten Ender. This is the "War to end all wars" mentality in a nutshell.
The underlying theme and message of this movie, deals with the concept of defeating our enemies when we believe they are bent on our extinction. That to truly win and avoid future conflict, we must exterminate our foes. Isn't future peace worth that?
Is there a question that could be more relevant to current events than this?
With all the conflict in Gaza, the ghastly murders and genocide taking place in Iraq with ISIS, the constant warring in Africa and other parts of the world, Ender's Game poses serious questions to us as human beings about how we treat one another, how we defend ourselves and how we triumph against our foes without becoming the villain we are trying to defeat. While Ender's Game is an older movie, and a much older story, I will not spoil the ending. However I will just say that Ender is forced into a situation where he becomes the very creature he is trying to defeat.
Recently I enrolled in a novel rewriting and revising class by Dave Farland (Dave Wolverton). In one of the online meetings via a web conference meeting, he discussed how great stories (the ones that last and have lasting values) are ones that ask us deep questions, challenge the way we think, and oftentimes make us uncomfortable with our preconceived notions of good and evil, right and wrong. He mentioned in his lecture how a story like "The fault in our stars" will always resonate and have more lasting power in our society than a story like "50 Shades of Grey".
The reason for this lasting power of great stories like those by Dickens, Twain, Salinger, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, and others, is that their stories challenge us and ask meaningful questions about our life, our humanity and our beliefs. In "The Fault in Our Stars" a terminally ill young girl falls in love with a young man who decides to love her knowing what her limited future holds. It's a powerful story, that challenges the selfish nature of what we THINK is love, with a story that is about true selfless love and who we chose to let into our lives.
Stories like "50 Shades" on the other hand, may sell lots of books, because they are basically just "verbal pornography" that appeals to the baser nature of mankind, but they ultimately are flashes in the pan. Sure, E.L James is richer than all of us, but 50 years from now, will anyone discuss how the story moved them or changed their life?
Or will they sit around the book club still talking about those authors who changed the world with a story like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"?
Ender's Game true power is in the question it asks us about the prices we pay to defeat our foes, the effort we expend to really understand them, try to work things out. It asks us about what we are willing to trade in exchange for survival, our innocence, our children, our freedom, our humanity and possibly our very souls.
And that is a message the entire world could use.