Asa Butterfield can’t resist saying “Hi Mom!”
(2013) Science Fiction (Summit) Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Nonso Anozie, Moises Arias, Stevie Ray Dillmore, Andrea Powell, Conor Carroll, Aramis Knight, Brandon Soo Hoo, Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak, Suraj Partha, Khylin Rambo, Caleb Thaggard, Cameron Gaskins, Kyle Clements, Wendy Miklovic, Jasmine Kaur. Directed by Gavin Hood
How many gamers have heard their parents tell them that their endless hours spent at the console/computer/device killing aliens, driving race cars, battling monsters and wrestling WWE superstars was wasted time? How many times have they heard that they gained no useful skills in doing so?
Here’s a movie that has a contrary viewpoint. 50 years after a devastating invasion by the ant-like Formic, an alien race seeking to colonize the Earth, the military knows that we as a species survived by the skin of our teeth. We never really developed a means of combating the swarming tactics of the aliens, unable to find any kind of pattern in their attacks. Only the bravery and sacrifice of one Mazer Rackham saved the human race.
Rather than trusting to established military tactics, the International Fleet has determined that the best way to combat an inevitable future invasion is to attack the home world of the Formic but not under the command of one of their own. Instead, they are taking the best and the brightest children and exposing them to strategy and tactics. The most ruthless of these are put into battle school and those with the most consistent record of victories are sent to command school. Only the very best of these will one day command that invasion.
Ender Wiggin (Butterfield) is a scrawny kid with a brilliant tactical mind. Disliked for his cold, intellectual demeanor (and a smug arrogance to be sure), he is constantly bullied by bigger kids but he is not only able to defend himself, he does so in such a way that precludes future bullying. This captures the attention of Colonel Graff (Ford) who promotes Ender to battle school. While Ender’s parents fret, Ender’s brother Peter (Pinchak) shows frustration that it isn’t him going further in the program while his compassionate sister Valentine (Breslin) tries to protect her little brother.
Ender falls under the command of the small but tough Bonzo (Arias) who is as ambitious as they come and doesn’t want a newbie ruining his chances at command school. Sergeant Dap (Anozie) doesn’t think much of Ender but grudgingly learns to respect him. Only Petra (Steinfeld), Alai (Partha) and Bean (Knight) believe in Ender while gruff Colonel Graff watches his progress with approval. Only Major Anderson (Davis), the school psychologist, worries about Ender the boy. “When it’s over, what will be left of the boy?” she wonders while the pragmatic Graff replies “What does it matter if there’s nothing left at all?”
Time is running out; Ender is the last hope of the military in their all-out war for survival against the relentless, implacable Formic. But Ender has reservations about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Can the boy become the man who will save the human race?
The movie is based on the first book of the Ender series by Orson Scott Card. Spanning a dozen books and at least as many short stories, this is clearly being looked at as a franchise for the studio which is lacking one now that the Twilight series is over. While the book wasn’t specifically aimed at the young adult market which Hollywood seems to drool over these days, it certainly has found a foothold among them.
The effects range from pretty good to spectacular which makes sense since Digital Domain, one of Hollywood’s premiere effects outfits, is aboard not just as an effects studio but also as a producer. Of particular note are the battle room sequences. Think of it as zero-G laser tag and while not quite up to the level of what we see in Gravity it is at least as technically competent and a whole lot of fun.
It’s always a good thing to see Harrison Ford onscreen and here he is the gruff, pragmatic (and some would argue heartless) military man who is balancing the survival of the human race with the needs of a little boy. The Colonel’s humanity occasionally shows through and one can only conclude that it is more Ford than the Colonel we are seeing in those moments. Graff is part Han Solo, part sensei but mostly military man and the latter characteristic wins through nearly every time.
Butterfield received criticism (although not from me) for being emotionless in Hugo but is less scintillating here than he was in that film. Ender is constantly battling his own rage throughout the film and we rarely get a sense of it from Butterfield, nor do we get a real sense of Ender’s genius. Most importantly, it isn’t until the coda that we get any sense of Ender’s humanity. Granted, this isn’t an easy role to play. There are no templates for it because nobody has ever gone through what Ender goes through in the film. Butterfield has to play it by ear and falls short. As much as it might pain me to say it, he might have benefitted from a director like Scorsese here – although Hood is a very good director who has coaxed amazing performances from less talented actors in the past.
I haven’t read the book in more than twenty years myself but I did like it back in the day and read several of the sequels (my son Jacob was also heavily into the Ender series as a teen). It seems to me that the movie stuck pretty well by the book although not exactly, but close enough that there hasn’t been much hue and cry from the devotees of the book. Considering that Card was a producer on the film might have something to do with it.
The movie falls short in generating excitement. In some ways it’s almost clinical and quite frankly it could have used a bit more emotion – not necessarily from the lead characters but simply in general. In a way, it could have used a little more Valentine and a little less Ender in that regard. Still, it’s impressive visually and while it doesn’t generate the kind of excitement that makes me eager for the series to continue as a franchise, I certainly would buy a ticket for the next film should one get made. Given the initial box office figures, that’s not a slam dunk.
REASONS TO GO: Terrific special effects. Harrison Ford.
REASONS TO STAY: Butterfield not quite up to snuff. Lacks passion.
FAMILY VALUES: Sci-fi action and violence, some thematic elements and a fairly nightmare-inducing monster.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the battle room zero-g scenes, the actors had to attend Space Camp but also got special instructions from Cirque du Soleil performers regarding the choreography. Special devices had to be invented in order to give the actors full range of motion during the physically demanding scenes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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