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Film review: ENDER’S GAME, from Built For Speed

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Science Fiction.

Classification: TBA

Director(s): Gavin Hood.

Release date: 5th Dec 2013.

Running time: 114 mins.

Based on controversial author Orson Scott Card’s famed 1985 science fiction novel, Ender’s Game is one of the most hotly anticipated film adaptations of recent times.  I have not read the book so my review comes from the perspective of someone not already enamoured of the Enders mythology.

Ender’s Game propels us into the near future where an aggressive alien race of giant ants called the Formics has attacked earth and almost defeated humanity. Only a heroic counterattack from fleet commander Mazer Rackam (Ben Kingsley) saved our species from annihilation.  Fast forward 50 years and with another attack imminent, Earth’s military are desperate to find the next Rackham. Among the youngsters press-ganged into training at the fleet academy is troubled kid genius Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield).  At the Academy he progresses through increasingly intense and complex programmes designed to hone his prodigious talents as a military strategist and to promote the violent side of his personality.  As his military training progresses he finds himself torn between the competing aspects of his nature: the violent urges beaten into him by his bullying brother (Jimmy Pinchak) and the compassion learned from his sister (Abigail Breslin).  This internal battle causes him to question his role in the war machine and the motives of his hawkish commanding officer Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford).

Enders Game is an intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful mix of special effects-driven space opera, teen rites of passage parable and war film.  Almost the entire movie involves Ender training at the Fleet Academy’s slick, high-tech boot camp and this is where the film strikes its biggest problem. Apart from some fleeting flashbacks to Rackham’s dogfights with the Formics, nearly all the battle sequences in this film involve Ender and his fellow recruits playing elaborate computer simulations on vast screens so, essentially, we’re watching kids play computer games. Director/script-writer Gavin Hood may have been trying to comment on the pervasiveness of computer games in today’s youth culture but the absence of actual battle scenes or visceral contact between humans the formics gives the film a hollow feeling.

Also, despite its futuristic setting, the film indulges ancient military boot camp clichés with the hard-ass drill sergeant barking orders like “drop and give me 20” and newbies suffering bastardisation at the hands of older recruits. Ender seems to be the most bullied person in the galaxy as everyone including his brother tries to throttle him.  The film also employs the stereotypically loud ominous clanging musical score seemingly required of all films set in the military.

Ender’s Game often impresses on a purely technical level, though, with imposing cgi effects that feature vast skeletal spaceships and scenes that are as realistic as the outer-space shots in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. The film also has a pristine, ice blue production design which is at times striking although it doesn’t seer itself into the memory like the intricate menacing space ship interiors in films such as Alien.

As Ender, Asa Butterfield has a touch of Damien from The Omen making him more creepy than likeable but his experience of bullying will resonate with many viewers.  Also, Ender’s internal conflict and his battle of wills with Graff lends this film a psychological force usually absent from action-obsessed science fiction films.  As Colonel Graff, Harrison Ford is typically cynical and grumpy but he seems (a little) more invested in this film than he has been in recent outings. Ben Kingsley, though, looks as if he turned up late to the Cloud Atlas audition as he wears Maori facial tattoos and speaks in what seems to be a South African accent.  As a kind of brutal Mr Miyagi to Ender’s Karate Kid, Kingsley’s performance here is comically weird. 

Ender’s Game thankfully takes its subject seriously making a few topical references to post 9-11 anti-terrorist propaganda and the morality of war but doesn’t become overly pompous and po-faced and leavens a few scenes with humour.  In the end, though, the preponderance of lengthy and confusing computer-simulated spaceship dogfights becomes a little tedious.

 

 

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