Monday, 22 September 2014

Ender's Game

This film is based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card. I haven't read the book, but the film seems to me to be an almost endless pastiche of images, ideas and dialogue from a long stream of near future, we're under alien attack threat movies that have been around since the 1950s. As Kermode would say it's highly derivative. It is a cowboy film set in in space - part of that trope of films that fall within the American post-WWII need of a redemptive and sacrificial saviour figure. Now, that reminds me of another story I've read somewhere.

The opening words of the film from the character Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) set out the entire plot and narrative arc so not very much of what you see is surprising:
"Fifty years ago an alien force known as the Formics attacked Earth. Tens of millions died. It was only through the sacrifice of our greatest commander that we avoided total annihilation. We've been preparing for them to come back ever since. The International Fleet decided that the world's smartest children are the planet's best hope. Raised on war games, their decisions are intuitive, decisive, fearless. I am one of those recruits."
The characters in this film show little development and the pace little variation. The dialogue is at times clunky as it explains points of the story to the audience - just in case they are not keeping up. To have two such heavyweights as Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley seemed  a disproportionate use of Hollywood A-listers given the feel of the film with most of the cast being teenagers. However, where this film does excel in in its use of CGI which are top notch and seamlessly integrate into the real world. I watched this on Blu-ray and the picture quality was stunning.

What makes watching this film worthwhile are the number of moral and ethical issues it explores some of which are:

  • The main soldiers in this war are children who are controlled by adults who are portrayed as being simply pragmatic. When too many real world news reports from the middle-East and Africa show children toting AK47s it is a stark reminder that we have crossed a line somewhere along the way.
  • The basis for selecting recruits is their ability to excel at computer games. The film nicely sets up questions around the blurring of the real with the virtual and implicitly asks do these separate worlds require different rules of engagement. Does the context dictate the moral code?
  • The film also questions the assumption that all aliens are hostile. I kept expecting to see Capt Jean-Luc Picard come charging in to broker a solution!
  • It is impossible to avoid issues surrounding genocide in this film and to ask how culpable are those who carry it out for the 'greater good' of their own kind - intergalactic utilitarianism. Can genocide ever be justified?
  • Ender is presented as an innocent boy suffering abuse at the hands of his brother and in need of support and affirmation from his sister yet is thrust into the role of Commander of the Army setting up a nice tension between intention and outcome and the ethical implications attached to both.
I thought the ending of the film was clever and held out the prospect of a sequel if it was thought the franchise would be up for it - but the film has to date only recovered slightly more than half its $110m production cost so that seems unlikely. If this film comes around on TV you might want to give it a watch but not one for rushing out to buy the disc. I'll give it 6/10.


Doug Chaplin said...

Hi Duncan,

I found myself less negative about the clichés than you, because I thought they were used more creatively in the filmic narrative - which knew they were clichés. I would also have wanted to say more about Asa Butterfield's performance, which I thought was excellent. But otherwise I agree with many of the positive things you say, and felt that Ford and Kingsley were less well used than they might have been, and without giving spoilers away, the ending was very well handled.

Duncan Strathie said...

Thanks for commenting Doug - valid points, but I always try and call it as I see it. Yes Butterfield was excellent - one to watch I think. His brooding intensity was compelling.

I guess the lack of energy for a sequel confirms it's not the best film of either Ford or Kingsley?

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