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.



Film review: more views on IRON MAN 3, from Built For Speed

By 2008 the Marvel Comics adaptations weren’t looking too healthy.  The Fantastic Four films had been turkeys and the overlong and confusing Spiderman 3 had skittled the high expectations raised by the sensational Spiderman 2Iron Man, however, was like a 50,000 vault surge of electricity to the ailing Frankenstein corpse of superhero movies.  The film combined powerful dynamic action sequences with a slick futuristic visual style that included stunning holographic computer technology and hardware to leave to both tech and petrol heads salivating.  Best of all though, it had a terrific central character in the cocky but likeable Tony Stark who was played to perfection by Robert Downey Jr. Stark was the ultimate American hero: a super-rich, uber-capitalist, party animal who loved blowing stuff up.  The franchise was soon in trouble, though, as a messy plot and Mickey Rourke’s ridiculous electric-whip wielding villain let down Iron Man 2.

Unfortunately, despite huge, elaborate action set pieces, multiple villains and even more hardware and sophisticated computer technology than before, Iron Man 3 doesn’t quite restore the franchise’s mojo.

Number three sees Tony Stark as a troubled man stressed to the point of anxiety attacks by his violent adventures in the previous two Iron Man films and his Avengers escapades.  Having handballed responsibility for Stark industries to love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) he’s virtually a house husband who bickers with his robot butler and tinkers with new Iron Man technology.  He’s soon blasted out of retirement, though, when Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) a once nerdy scientist turned slick yuppie super villain, begins a deadly terror campaign fuelled by his resentment of Stark.  Faced with a presidential kidnapping and disturbing public bombings, Stark has to confront Killian and his army of genetically enhanced super soldiers.

The Iron Man films are largely about video game style destruction and here, the all-important action scenes are, for the most part, impressively orchestrated and feature some stunning cinematography from John Toll. The problem is that director Shane Black doesn’t know when to rein in the sensory assault as the action becomes a manic, headache-inducing frenzy of activity where it’s difficult to know what the hell is going on.  It’s almost like the cinematic equivalent of attention deficit disorder as the film leaps frantically between multiple explosions and fight scenes.

Admittedly, a lot of this film is played for laughs with Downey undercutting nearly every violent confrontation with a smug quip.  Unfortunately he delivers his lines so fast it’s often hard to know if he’s actually said anything funny.

Writer/ Director Black whose Icarus-like trajectory as a scriptwriter in the 1980’s and 90’s saw him pen the first two Lethal Weapon films before nosediving on The Last Action Hero, draws heavily on his familiar bag of tricks.  He includes numerous scenes such as the obliteration of a hillside house that recall Lethal Weapon 2.

The film tries to add an intriguing existential layer to the story and to Stark’s character by having him face the dilemma of whether he is a hero or just a clever mechanic in a suit. Unfortunately, Iron Man 3 doesn’t explore this theme in any great depth.  Also, fan-boys may be miffed by the fact that this soul-searching means Stark barely dons the suit in the first hour.

Downey still exudes that amiable Stark arrogance although, for a large part of the film, he’s more like James Bond than Iron Man.  His invasion of a compound looks more like something out of a Bond film than a Marvel Comics adaptation.

With Lawless and now this film, Guy Pearce seems to be carving a niche for himself as a smug, leering and intimidating villain.  Hopefully for Pearce this is an avenue out of peripheral roles and into headline status.

Iron Man 3 also includes a large but underused supporting cast.  Sir Ben Kingsley appears as The Mandarin, a long-time Iron Man nemesis from the comics, who’s eerily reminiscent of real world terrorists.  The Mandarin character has a bizarre secret which allows Kingsley to play a range of emotions but this hardly ranks among Sir Ben’s most memorable roles.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s Rebecca Hall also appears as an evolutionary botanist and brief love rival to Pepper but she soon becomes a superfluous character.

In the end, there’s enough ear-shattering destruction in this film to please most of the franchise’s fans but it’s a pretty hollow spectacle. Let’s hope future instalments in the Iron Man saga reassert quality story telling ahead of the video game action frenzy.


Nick’s rating: Two and a half stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s):  Shane Black.

Release date: 24th April 2013.

Running time:  130 mins.