Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Enemy's Gate Is Down

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

Last night was the premier of Ender's Game, the film adaptation of one of the greatest pieces of sci-fi literature of the past 30 years. Based on a book published in 1985, and long in production with the author Orson Scott Card serving as screenwriter and producer in the past, this movie had been in an interminable production for years. During that time, the series has expanded to include a dozen sequels, comic book adaptations, and short stories. And it's still growing, with at least one more sequel and another prequel planned to be released soon. But the most important question, now that the movie has been released and the inevitable talk of a cinematic sequel has already begun: is it a good science fiction film?

Expectations 'Odor': If you've read my blog for any amount of time, you know that I've been waiting for this for a long time. I first read the book fifteen years ago, and it's important to note that I helped work on a screenplay adaptation of Ender's Game within a year. It wasn't long after I worked on my script and read the followup The Speaker for the Dead trilogy that the first rumors of an Ender's Game movie surfaced. Originally Wolfgang Petersen, director of Das Boot, Enemy Mine, and Air Force One, was attached to the primordial movie websites. Later, several X-Men alum were rumored to be on the project. Ultimately, I stopped trying to follow the pre-production limbo of Ender's Game. It just hurt too much. But Ender's story has remained important to me, and with this movie I've been getting progressively more and more excited since that first full trailer's release. I even wrote a tribute to my grandfather's passing in a format very similar to a Speaker for the Dead.

So my expectations are high. Probably a little higher than most fans of the book. The casting choices, as they've been revealed, have been extremely exciting--Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff seems an unintuitive-but-perfect fit, as is Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham. But at the same time, the trailers have done very little to indicate how much of the book's psychological depth and exhausted desperation--key themes in the novel--will make it to the screen. With not much to go on, I think my expectations, my enthusiasm, my criticism, and my hope probably all meter out to something fairly optimistic in the end. We'll just see what the pay off is like.

Appreciation 'Beef': Ender's Game is very pretty and well-acted. I hope you can hear the negative conjunction coming from around the corner because I've got a big 'but' coming... Ender's Game is very pretty and well-acted, but the plot is rather clumsy and unfocused. There's a lot of strong elements and really polished performances, but in the end the narrative suffers from a lack of strong direction.

The general design and cinematography of the film is really stunning. Without cashing in on sleazy characters or cheap visuals like a J.J. Abrams movie, the look of the film is simply legit and epic. Particularly for a new sci-fi brand that can't rely on established designs for anything, the principal designs of the suits, the game arena, the battle school itself, and the ship designs are all distinct, top notch, and largely fit the limited descriptions of the book. What deviations there are from the descriptions largely make sense, too. The bulkiness ascribed to the game suits was a lot more relevant in the 80s, but the form-armor of the movie looks contemporary and still somewhat protective. The game arena goes from the book's description of being a formless cube to being a glass bubble floating over the planet, giving the Battle School matches a dizzying backdrop to help ground the audience's disorientation. These three-dimensional battles were really well done and did a decent job--though overly condensed--of intimating the tactical geometry of the book's fights. The ship designs were rather more utilitarian than the John Harris cover art I'd grown accustomed to, but the proliferation of Harris' covers throughout 80s and 90s sci-fi means that using his covers for direct inspiration might not have felt that authentic. Heck, I just discovered that the original Ender's Game cover art was re-purposed from an earlier novel called Drunkard's Walk. In any case, I ate up the special effects and visuals of the film.

The acting was really gratifying, and predictably I found Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff and Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham really stole the show as Ender's mentors. Viola Davis also did a great job as the military warmachine's bleeding heart, Major Anderson. I wasn't especially gripped by Asa Butterfield's performance as the lead, but Hailee Steinfeld as Petra did a great job of playing off of him and adding a bit more heart to their scenes together. And Moises Arias, who played Bonzo Madrid, gave one of the most convincing portrayals of childish maliciousness I've ever seen in this sort of movie. In fact, for a movie containing so many young actors, I was pleasantly surprised that every actor seemed suited to their roles and those who didn't stand out were at least capable. Even Abigail Breslin did a good job of realizing the mature-but-impotent philanthropist Valentine Wiggin. And that's from someone who really didn't like her in Zombieland.


I understand that this is a movie and plays by different rules than a novel. I've always said that a strict adaptation is not necessarily a good one. But it seems every plot change the movie made was antagonistic to the themes that made the book popular and made the film's own voice dwindle. The timeline of the movie is a shambles. Apparently, the entire ordeal of selection, Battle School, and Command School takes only about 40 days. Literally, about thirty minutes into the movie they show a timer that says "28 days to alien homeworld." Not only is it eminently stupid to put a timer on a frakking third-act plot twist, but it is a slap in the face to much of the plot where Ender is being tested and refined. You have one month, dill-brains! Just start training him outright! They also overlook the second Bugger Invasion completely, which undermines the sociological and psychological topography of the threat. The whole point of the book is that the Formics first attacked with a scout force and then sent a proper invasion years later when they found a seemingly weak target.

One of the hurdles that Orson Scott Card has personally mentioned in an interview with Wired was that the book is very insular--much of the action is internalized within Ender's mind. The movie rather clumsily tries to flesh this out by vocalizing Ender's e-mails back to his sister, Valentine, but the correspondence is so bland it feels like a kid reporting on summer camp and doesn't really seem to fit the character or the setting--almost like he's self-censoring to avoid spilling classified info. If that was the case, it could serve the story, but it's a significant plot-point in the movie that Ender is being open with his bland, uninspired letters, and so it defeats the purpose of even including them.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I'm glad I saw Ender's Game, and I may even see it again in theaters. The battle scenes were gorgeous, and Ford's delivery of Graff's hardline strategy for saving the human race is engrossing.


(minor spoilers ahead)

I can't say this is a very good movie. I'm not saying it's bad, but I find it hard to get into something that is so confused about what it wants to be. For a movie so rushed up until it happens, they take way too long to resolve the post-Command School plot. A part which I think would've been better left as a one minute post-credits scene, they draw it out more than any other scene in the entire movie when they didn't even build up to it properly.

They only partially met the three expectations I listed in my earlier post anticipating this movie. The third invasion of the Formics was not even a lie in this movie because there was no second invasion, and they seriously drop the bomb of that lie at the earliest possible opportunity so that the steaming dud doesn't even really impact the audience. And when Ender ignorantly wipes out the Formic homeworld, the emotional content of the scene is so backwards as to defeat the impact of the twist itself (for Ender, because with the timer reveal any audience member should see the twist coming). In the book, Ender is supposed to be mentally exhausted and spent, ready to quit when he petulantly 'breaks' the game with a suicidal and genocidal attack on the enemy's base. The observing leaders, however, are supposed to be relieved, cheering and crying and congratulating each other at that moment of victory. That cruel juxtaposition, then, beats Ender when he was already low. The movie, however, depicts the kids cheering while the adults somberly conference and inform Ender of the dire truth.

It may seem like a nit-pick, but the changes the movie made to the mind game Ender plays throughout his training was also tweaked in a fundamental way. In the book, when Ender commands his mouse avatar to burrow into the giant's eye and kill him, the giant then rots and becomes a green, rich hillside. This is not only dramatic symbolism that foreshadows how humanity will suborn colonies originally terraformed by the Formics, but it also alludes to Norse creation myths and the death of Ymir. The movie's simple omission of this detail robs the mind game of its elegance and symbolic force that could have really helped to elevate the quality of the narrative.

The changes to the timeline were especially illogical and unjustified. And omitting the Second Bugger War altogether entirely defeats the plausibility of Graff's position. That can't be overstated. I really had to insert the movie Graff into the plot of the book in order to have him make sense, and in order to match Ford's dour defeatism he brought to life. And that's not only imaginatively over-complicated, but it's rather pathetic.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Fans of sci-fi who aren't terribly in love with the book--or haven't read it at all--might be able to get into this movie. I say might because the plot holes and weaknesses that gall me are still visible within the context of the movie by itself, but less obvious. Fans of the book will at best be pleased with pretty lights and great moments that do adhere briefly to the novel, but mostly they'll come away with a story that is more "inspired by" than "adapted from" Ender's Game. Fans may be able to enjoy it if they're sufficiently braced against such disappointment, but they need to really understand that no moment in the movie compares to a comparable part of the book in terms of dramatic and emotional content or social commentary.

You know, as a fan of the book's depth and someone who wrote a better screenplay in junior high, I'm not sure I was prepared for the plot to be the weakest part of this movie. I doubted the job the young cast might do. I worried the three-dimensional Battle School scenes wouldn't translate well to the screen. I thought they'd outright cut large sections of the book. Instead, they condensed everything without making the tough decisions to cut out some of the elements they underdeveloped and under-delivered, and everything else is rather more anemic because of it.

At the same time, in a world where World War Z was turned into a dumb action movie without real zombies, socio-political drama, or one recognizable element from the critically acclaimed novel and still get 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, I think Ender's Game deserves its chance. It's certainly closer to the text, more reverent, and more consistently respectful of the fans who made the book popular in the first place.

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