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June 27, 2022

Ender's Game: Movie Review

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Bernie said:

Ambivalent -- having mixed feelings about something. That definitely hits the nail on the head this week in describing my reaction to Ender's Game, because there is no doubt that I am bivalent about this movie.

We learn quickly, too quickly, that the Earth had at some point in the past had a really nasty infestation of bugs from another planet and, after ineffectually depleting the entire world's supply of insect repellent, was saved by some guy (Ben Kingsley) who flies his plane directly into the bug's mother ship, blowing them up and apparently killing himself. The bugs go away and the Earth spends the next fifty years preparing for a counter attack, which interestingly, they think will have to be led by a kid since, well, most kids are fly-brained.

As it turns out, Ender Wiggin is a really bright kid who nobody likes and who comes from a dysfunctional family with clueless parents, a older brother with anger management issues who whops up on his little brother for no apparent reason, and an older sister with whom he seems a little too close. (I was the third and youngest child in my family, so I get that part, but I didn't have a sister, so maybe I just don't understand that dynamic.) Ender is smart enough to catch the eye of the military guy in charge of training kids to be soldiers (Harrison Ford), and is recruited into the training program.

Ender trains and trains and trains, and most people don't like him, but he is pretty darn smart and has a kind of Sergeant York/Gary Cooper kind of innate sense of what needs to be done, so he attracts a following amongst the misfits of the training facility and together they form a team that upsets the apple cart and establishes them as the best of the best, the team that the Earth will count on to kill the bugs. Will they succeed?

As I said, I've got mixed emotions about this movie. On the one hand ... there is strong adult cast in this movie. Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis should be enough of a cast all by itself to produce a good movie. Kingsley has one Best Actor Oscar under his belt. Davis and Ford have been nominated before. It's just a matter of time before Davis' talent combines with the right role to get her an Oscar of her own, and Ford will no doubt one day win one in the category of Best Performance by an Actor Who Is Harrison Ford.

On the other hand ... there was no substance to any of these roles, and the obvious talent was obviously wasted.

On the one hand ... I don't generally enjoy movies about kids who somehow save the day just because they're kids. Life doesn't work that way, and the entire concept seems to me to be a really juvenile fantasy. Besides, there aren't too many kid actors that I've liked. For the record, I hated Shirley Temple.

On the other hand ... Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin turns in a nuanced, skilled performance. Despite the talent of the adult performers, it is Butterfield's performance that gives the film what credibility it has.

On the one hand ... this is a sci-fi film loaded with flashy special effects shots.

On the other hand ... the flashy special effects were wasted on some pretty boring stuff. What you see in the previews is just about all there really is.

On the one hand ... there is a story here, and even some interesting twists to the plot.

On the other hand ... too much is made of elements that are of little importance, and things of greater importance are rushed through. A fair amount of time is spent on displaying Ender's relationship with his sister, a relationship that is of virtually no importance to the story, and the character of Major Gwen Anderson, the second in command at the training school and on whom the talents of Viola Davis were squandered, is given short shrift. Despite the great potential for sci-fi action with the bug invasion of the Earth and the Earth's counter-attack, Ender's Game is not really about those events. It is the story of Ender Wiggin in training camp coming to grips with who he is and the responsibility that he has.

Throughout most of film, I kept wondering if my eleven-year-old granddaughter would like this movie. I wondered if she might identify with Ender's challenge. Part of the reason I wondered this is because I was pretty bored with the story. And I think that's the crux of the problem with this movie. With a cast of Harrison Ford, Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley, I was expecting a substantial story, an adult film, but Ender's Game is really a kid's film. If this story had been done as an animated movie, it might actually have better. In fact, as an anime-style production with magical rather technologically-advanced bugs and Harrison Ford as a wise sorcerer, this film may have been dynamite.

But it wasn't anime. My impression throughout the entire film was that I was watching an extended commercial for the video game that I am sure is soon to follow. Ender's game, it appears, is marketing.

I think you should save your money and skip this one. You'll need the money too, because this week we've got coming up Thor, a must see, and The Book Thief which looks very good.

Sand said:

Well, I agree with Bernie on some points, but not all. As Bernie said, this movie is about Ender's journey in his training; but I really don't think that a movie could possibly convey all the dimensions of Orson Scott Card's novel, Ender's Game.

Ender's Game (the novel) not only stretches over years of Ender's training in game simulations and strategy, but also treats the war-torn, politically volatile situation on earth. It begins with the Wiggins family, whose genetically-engineered children were bred to genius; there is a one-child law to preserve resources, but the Wigginses were given not only a second chance, but a third. The First, brother Peter, has a profoundly vicious streak that flaws him; the Second, Valentine, is too emotionally tender. Their Third child, Ender, may be the right balance. The novel follows not only Ender's schooling but also his genius siblings' political activism, and a military establishment with its eyes on Ender's ability -- and not just for the alien war, but also as a weapon for political parties on Earth.

I think the movie Ender's Game did a fabulous job of compressing and following Ender's training, and his dilemma, and the government's deception. And I cannot imagine any young man doing a better job of portraying Ender than Asa Butterfield has, from the timid and unsure boy who was sure he wasn't good enough to go to Battle School, to the assured and focused boy who would lead his team to victory after victory.

Harrison Ford doesn't look like he had his face Botoxed, he acts like he swallowed it, he had so little expression. The man ought to have the dignity to retire. Viola Davis does a good job of being a shrink in uniform, but there's not enough of her to clearly understand why her character is there. And God bless him, I love Ben Kingsley, but a Maori tattoo? What? Plus his reference to being a "Speaker for the Dead" is completely obscure unless you've read the Orson Scott Card book, and out of place if you have.

All that said, I enjoyed the movie far more than the book, which I laboriously waded through after having been nagged by a friend for years to do so. Yet I don't think that I would have enjoyed the movie so much had I not suffered through the dull writing of the book.

Though I don't expect this movie to be an overwhelming success, I do hope that enough people see it to re-think the teaching of their children to win at all costs, as Ender was, without questioning whether or not winning is the right thing to do.

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-11-04
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