Skip to main content

What does it matter if there's nothing left at all?

Ender's Game
(2013)

(MINOR SPOILERS) Ender’s Game arrives on screen awash with controversy, although little of it relates to the film itself. No doubt there are fans of the book dissatisfied with yet another Hollywood adaptation scooping up and spitting out a mangled version of their beloved text. The negative press mostly relates to author Orson Scott Card’s rampant homophobia, and has subsequently overwhelmed any conversation regarding the movie. I’ll try not to do likewise. So here’s my verdict on Ender’s Game, the movie; it’s… well, it’s okay.


The only Orson Scott Card I've read is his novelisation of The Abyss, a long time ago back when I was genuinely a fan of James Cameron and lapped up anything connected to his films. Apparently Ender’s Game represented a challenge of "unfilmable" proportions (often a pronouncement on tomes subsequently turned into average movies), because so much of it is predicated on the point of view of Ender and so exists in his head. That, and its paedo-friendly content.


First published in 1985, the novel concerns mankind’s war with an insectoid species (known as Buggers there, and Formics in the film). In order to defeat the aliens once and for all, the military takes an unusual tack; they enlist children. It seems that their supple young minds give them a tactical advantage against the enemy. One of these whippersnappers is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield). He shows such aptitude and anticipation of his opponents’ behaviour that Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) really thinks he could be “the one” (I don’t know to what extent Card’s novel uses this kind of messianic language, but there’s been such an overkill of “chosen” heroes in recent years that they should have given the theme a wide berth). Much of the film concerns the ups-and-downs of Ender’s boot camp training, as the juniors are prepared for eventual confrontation with the real enemy; this takes the form of zero-gravity war games and computer battle simulations.


The kids have been aged-up by a few years from the novel. There were probably a slew of good reasons for this, but the most valid one (finding young actors who could deliver consistently strong performances) achieves variable results. Butterfield's not bad; he’s certainly better here than in Hugo (when he’d have been about the age of the novel’s Ender). Perhaps fortunately for him, the script is so perfunctory that he can't really be blamed for failing to emote the anger, conflict, and all-important empathy Ender feels towards his foes. It quickly becomes clear that the movie is paying lip service to the themes and plot progressions of the source material. As a result it devolves into a series of recognisable tropes; triumph over bullying; conflict with superiors; persevering and rising to leadership through tests. Depictions of cadet training will forever look to the Full Metal Jacket standard and come up short; this isn’t even close (Nonso Anozie’s no bullshit Sergeant Dap is a big cuddly podgeball compared to R Lee Ermy).


Here’s the thing; there are some reasonably strong ideas in the movie, but they're ironed out into "and then this happens" moments. Ender’s rise from outcast to leader is all-too easy and, when his refusal to fight any more is laughably resolved by Graff’s acquiescence to his demand for the return of email privileges, it starts to resemble an adolescent Top Gun, unable to meet the material’s aspirations towards depth.


Of which, Ender’s Game seems to be actively scoring points in Philosophy Class. There’s a debate over the justification of the utilitarian position that appears to be central. The military takes the view that the sacrifices (of the kids’ childhoods, of the alien species) are valid because the outcome is the preservation of humankind. Ender, through his pervasive empathy (but also his capacity for violence; it is his “love” for his enemy that allows him to defeat his enemy) arrives at a different position; he does not contend that the actions of his superiors are flat-out wrong (a deontological approach, dealing in moral absolutes), rather that their reasons are. By the close of the picture, he appears to display the traits of virtue ethics (where one’s inner values make one moral, and one’s actions are an extension of character rather than the defining factor of one’s morality).  While the horribly trite final lines (something about seeing if he can broker peace as effectively as he can wage war) might suggest a morally absolute approach, they really reflect only the engagement of Ender’s now virtuous state. That these themes tend translate in a pedestrian or platitudinous manner may be either a consequence of the compression of the novel or simply because Card didn’t have much going on in the first place.


Nevertheless, this is consistently watchable. Perversely, that’s in part because of all the tried-and-tested clichés it should really have been avoiding. It’s hard to go too far wrong with the "He's the One" blueprint (well, you’d think). The basic training and strategy games are effectively realised; director (and screenplay writer) Gavin Hood does a tremendous job making the Zero G fights visually coherent and engaging. The bullyboys are appropriately hissable (Moises Arias deserves particular credit for his loathsome performance) and the reaction of the adults, although entirely predictable (Harrison keeps shouting about the highest scores ever, Viola Davis waffles concerns for the poor boy’s soul), adds a spur to the proceedings. Later, the simulations descend into any-movie CGI spaceships and explosions. These are indistinct in design and uninspired in execution. It also seems that video games of the future have graphics up to the standard of that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie now more than a decade old.


The result of this aggressively formulaic approach is the feeling that the "violence is bad" message (or rather, the “violence is bad under certain circumstances but we’re a bit vague and ineffectual about what they are” message) is just window-dressing for how cool it is to blow shit up. Which may help to explain why this is suggested reading for the US Marines. It’s curious that Ender’s comes out the same year as After Earth, another filming apparently extolling the virtues of a “hard love” upbringing as a means for the boy to become a better man. Perhaps this is all a warm-up to reintroducing the draft.


Amongst the mish-mash of subtexts are some rather clumsy parallels between the conflict with the Formics (is insectoid the only sort of alien these days?) and the US’s policy towards the Middle East. Underlining this, Ender makes pals with a Muslim boy who greets him on each occasion with "As-salamu alaykum". Is there a nascent suggestion here that well-intentioned Ender (the US) will lead all nationalities, races and cultures (his squadron, the aliens) to a glorious and better future? Maybe the producers were just extra-alert to the furore surrounding Card and tried to make the film as contrastingly inclusive as possible. Such sops do nothing to make it distinctive in its own right, though. Ender even makes friends with a ginger.


Harrison Ford is present and just about correct. He isn't quite asleep, which is something, but it's increasingly distracting how his nose appears to be spreading steadily to the right. There's also a scene where a bit of food on his chin disappears one shot later. It’s easy to be distracted when post-‘80s Harrison is on the screen. Ben Kingsley can now retire content in the knowledge that there are no nationalities or ethnic groups left for him to play.


There’s certainly no reason not to make controversial material into something very different, or to steer clear of adapting a dodgy author’s work unless that work itself is intrinsically loathsome. Even then, Paul Verhoeven retooled Robert Heinlein’s pro-fascist novel Starship Troopers into a superb satire of the same. The problem with Ender’s Game is that it isn’t really much of anything. Gavin Hood is forgiven for all things X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which were probably only partly his fault) but this picture’s strongest ideas and themes are ultimately anaesthetised.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

What happens at 72?

Midsommar (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ari Aster, by rights, ought already to be buckling under the weight of all those accolades amassing around him, pronouncing him a horror wunderkind a mere two films in. But while both Midsommar and Hereditary have both received broadly similar critical acclaim, his second feature will lag behind the first by some distance in box office, unless something significant happens in a hitherto neglected territory. That isn’t such a surprise on seeing it. While Hereditary keeps its hand firmly on the tiller of shock value and incident, so as to sustain it’s already more than adequate running time, Midsommar runs a full twenty minutes longer, which is positively – or rather, negatively – over-indulgent for what we have here, content-wise, and suggests a director whose crowned auteurishness has instantly gone to his head.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.