CCNMA: The enemy’s gate is down — Ender’s Game

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I see plenty of movies that I wish had been shorter, and many more that don’t cause me to reflect a great deal on their running time at all. I almost never see a movie and think, “I wish that had been longer.” So congratulations, Ender’s Game, you’re a rarity. It’s particularly disappointing to get just 1 hour and 54 minutes of Battle School, the Buggers, Dragon Army, the Giant’s Drink, Mazer Rackham and all the rest of it in an age when blockbusters — and especially “bookbusters,” films adapted from hugely popular novels — routinely blow past the two-hour mark and occasionally even top three hours in length.

As movie adaptations go, this one is almost astonishingly faithful … with a couple of caveats. It jettisons entire subplots from its source material and includes a few of the usual boneheaded alterations. Key storytelling stretches from author Orson Scott Card’s groundbreaking novel (my longtime favorite science fiction novel ever written) have been stripped of their innards and carved up like a Halloween pumpkin. And yet, what IS in the movie is generally so true to the spirit and substance of the book that I’d have happily sat still for an extra hour’s running time. Do we really want to live in a world that takes two entire movies to cinematically fathom the depths of Breaking Dawn, but doesn’t even have a full two hours to devote to Ender’s Game?

The widely loved story finds child genius Ender Wiggin — who’s essentially teenage genius Ender Wiggin here, because Hollywood — separated from his family by military leaders who sense greatness in him. The military wants to train its new boy wonder (and fast) to lead an invasion launched against the reviled “buggers,” insectoid aliens who nearly wiped out humanity entirely in two recent invasions of their own. (The movie uses Card’s more elevated term “formics” — from the Latin “formica,” meaning ant — which first appeared in later “Enderverse” novels.)

If we’re going to talk strictly in terms of directly discussing technology, or featuring its impact through plot and story, then Ender’s Game is a loose fit at best for this column. Ender sends a few e-mails, does a little messing around on one of whatever Apple is calling the iPad in 50-to-100-ish years from now. Various functionaries sit in front of computer terminals and press buttons. But it’s really a movie about war, training for war, and the will to wage war to the fullest extent possible.  Its themes are warlike themes, such as what it means to truly know your enemy, or how the evil sensei from The Karate Kid (“Strike first, strike hard, no mercy, sir!”) was essentially right about the principles of fighting to win.

Card’s novel has a fascinating subplot about how Ender’s brainy siblings, both Battle School rejects, gradually shape world politics through anonymous blogging. I’d almost have written a column just to address that, except that it’s not in the movie. (There’s another fun bit that the movie kind of half-includes in which Ender does a low-level hack of the Battle School computer net to defend a classmate from teasing.) A great deal of Card’s science-inspired material, actually, is carefully elided in favor of a focus on characters and psychology.

In another sense, however, computers are the star of the show. Ender’s Game has some of the best computer-assisted visual effects I’ve ever seen. Fans of the book have been waiting for years to see a movie team tackle the Battle Room, Card’s zero-gravity training facility, and Ender’s Game, with breathtakingly seamless VFX work by Digital Domain, doesn’t disappoint.

The biggest measure of how well it succeeds, actually, is how little you’ll notice what it’s doing — the characters might as well be gliding through an actual zero-G environment. The sets and costumes are convincing, the stunts are smooth and crisp, and the actors give every impression of actually experiencing weightlessness. It sounds simple, but reminds me of a line from prior CCNMA checkpoint Sneakers: “Hey! That’s not easy, what I just did!”

Ender does use his Battle School iPad to play games that are actually disguised psych evaluations. The formics eventually hijack the game and use it as a means of cloaked communication with their most devastating adversary, but the movie treats this more like mysticism than advanced technological exploitation. Most movies that feature technology of any kind end up at some level serving largely to illustrate author Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

In that sense, plenty of the technology that most of us live with every day is essentially magical, at least in our conception of how it works. Ender’s Game, with bigger thematic and conceptual fish to fry from start to finish, takes the route of most cinematic sci-fi, deploying a lot of cool technology without much caring whether anyone understands how it works.

The movie benefits from a fine day’s work by most of its cast. Harrison Ford is far snarlier and considerably less smugly self-assured than the Col. Hyrum Graff — the puppetmaster whose invisible hand guides Ender through battle school — depicted in Card’s novel, but Ford ends up being a good choice for Graff’s conflicting modes of compassion and ruthlessness. British actor Asa Butterfield is an excellent choice for Ender, inviting viewers’ empathy and interest from the start. In a just world, he’d have been given at least three hours to reveal Ender’s complexities.

PROGRAMMING NOTES

YOU, SIR, ARE NO NAPOLEON: It’s hard not to snigger at the pipsqueak chosen for the role of blustering Bonzo Madrid, the Battle School brat who makes an ordeal out of Ender’s first assignment to one of the school’s training “armies,” and eventually assaults him in one of the more sinister scenes from Card’s entire tale. It’s supposed to be daunting, not least of all to Ender, when Bonzo finally comes for him, but tiny Moises Arias (Rico on Hannah Montana) is just not physically large enough to intimidate anyone.

WARP FACTOR FIVE: One of the more egregious alterations by writer-director Gavin Hood is his decision to mess with Card’s carefully established rules of space travel. For significant and profound (not to mention imaginative and interesting) storytelling reasons, Card pointedly avoids the sci-fi-trope of faster-than-light travel in his novel: Ender commands the attack on the formic homeworlds (using faster than light communication) from an abandoned formic command post in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Hood, to spare himself the few minutes it would have taken to set the stage for book’s poignant epilogue, has Ender hop on a, um, faster-than-light ship to command the attack from the fringe of formic territory. I guess they did have Han Solo with them — maybe he just jumped the ship through hyperspace.

WE HARDLY KNEW THEE: I’d imagine it was monumentally expensive to film the Battle Room scenes, but it’s still disappointing to see most of the thrilling Battle Room material from the book compressed into a single pitched battle sequence. In 25 years from now, after the government has declassified its actual zero-gravity Battle Room training facility and movie crews can film there, I expect a 10-hour Ender’s Game miniseries.

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Chip Hartweir

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHIP HARTWEIR is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard with arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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