Thursday, 24 November 2016

Ender's Game

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford , Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis   

Director: Gavin Hood

114 minutes (12) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
E1 DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

“When I understand my enemy well enough to defeat him, then in that moment, I also love him” - A.E. Wiggin

Some years after he was Han Solo, and a few years before he was Han Solo again in the Star Wars re-boot, Harrison Ford was a humour-free Colonel Hyrum Graff in this militaristic SF oddity. The DVD edition has trailers for Divergent (2014) – which sets the kidult/ young-adults expectations, and Ford in geek-techie drama Paranoia (2013) which also ties in neatly. For the dubious premise here is that kids with on-screen play-station skills – ‘raised on war-games’, are sharper, faster and less judgment-clouded, hence best suited for directing strategies in vast galactic real space-battles. According to the narrator’s introduction, 50 years prior to the movie’s first moments, ‘tens of millions died’ when a fleet of huge bug-shaped alien ships crewed by the ant-like Formic attack Earth. Jets counter-attack in high-speed aerial dog-fights before heroic Mazer Rackham rams the hive-mind’s mother-ship, saving the world.

And so, because “we’ve been preparing for them to come back ever since,” there’s a genuine planetary threat. As Graff argues, “when the war is over we can have the luxury of debating the morality of what we do.” On the international fleet’s orbital battle-school, gruff Graff watches troubled outsider Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) progress, noting the skinny little runt’s bad attitude and ‘talent for strategy’. His ‘complicated response to authority’ and vicious survival instinct, ably demonstrated when he beats an older bully above and beyond retaliation - in order to win all the other fights to come. Ender has a supportive sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), and a jealous older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), but in an overpopulated world, that makes him the stigmatised ‘third’ child.

Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie) does the tough disciplinarian trainer thing for his ‘launchies’ in competitive zero-gravity strategy games with all the usual tedious rite-of-passage martial Private Benjamin raw-recruit boot-camp clich├ęs - a popular plotline in mainstream media, but one that Starship Troopers (1997) at least had the perception to treat with a sharp satiric edge. Graff further pokes and prods Ender behind the scenes into a series of stressful confrontations through which he gains the grudging respect of his team. As simultaneously, an on-screen problem-solving mind-game teaches him ‘follow the rules, you lose’. Promoted into the Salamander army, petty-minder Punk Bonzo (Moises Arias) tries to intimidate him, while Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) befriends him. Given an oddball misfit team - the Dragons - of his own, he pushes them hard but on a more interactive democratic basis, and naturally defeats the Salamanders. When he accidentally paralyses a vindictive Bonzo in a shower-room fight, his remorse forces a showdown with Graff, in which Ender quits.

Although not specified in the film, the book on which it’s based reveals Ender to be just ten-years-old at the time of his training. Orson Scott Card, who co-produced the film and wrote the novel, is a curiously unique SF writer, not necessarily in a good way. His religious context and anti-gay sentiments have repelled many, even when they are only subliminally infused into his fiction. A short story - Ender’s Game, in US magazine Analog (August 1977), was first gathered into Card's collection Unaccompanied Sonata (1981), was then expanded into his 1985 novel, which led to sequels including Speaker For The Dead (1986), Xenocide (1991), and Ender In Exile (2008). Card also introduces elements from his parallel novel Ender’s Shadow (1999) to flesh out the movie’s background. John Clute’s insightful essay on Card (in Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia, 1995), stresses the tight Mormon-informed family-centric nature of his plots, and it is the young hero’s sister Valentine who first figures in a metaphorical fantasy-sequence in which Ender also encounters a Formic (a ‘Bugger’ in the novels!), and her again, in an idyllic lakeside setting, who talks him into returning.

The movie’s emphasis switches sharply here. Instead of being taken back to the orbital battle-school, as he’d expected, Ender is posted to the Advance Command Base, a complex built into alien tunnels from which the Formic have been expelled, and overlooking the enemy’s own home planet. It becomes apparent that rather than defensively awaiting the next invasion-wave, the international fleet is proactively taking the war directly into the alien system. Who are the aggressors now? “The purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars,” explains Graff, referring back to Ender’s decisive retaliation against the bully. And there’s the Yoda-like impassivity of a Maori-tattooed Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who survived knocking out the Formic Queen’s mother-ship, in order to advise and tutor Ender through another gruelling series of simulated engagements.

With Formic forces bottled up on their world and yet to make an aggressive move, Ender is reunited with his team, to launch a final graduation simulation attack, sacrificing ships, transporters and dreadnaughts to target the planet itself. They use an MD500 ‘Death Star’ weapon to destroy the alien civilisation completely. Game Over. Except that this was no simulation. The world is genuinely dead. “I will bear the shame of this genocide for ever,” he protests. The ethics of this extermination forms the film’s moral heart, and saving grace. Can atrocity be justified? In a final sequence - as in the symbolist dream of his on-screen game, he enters a wrecked Formic ship and meets the last dying Queen. Establishing the thought-communication process that began in the dream, he pledges to travel the universe, seeking a new home-world for the brood she bequeaths to him.

From its dubious premise through the luxury of debating its muddled morality, this is a less than satisfying film. The effects are routinely stunning, Ford imposes a moody presence, and British-born Butterfield (previously seen in TV series Merlin) acquits himself well despite the inadequacies of the plot. The final turn-around is affecting, and Ender’s attempts to assuage his guilt add a final get-out-free clause. There’s a spin-off video computer game, ‘Use Your Laser Gun To Fire At Targets’. And then Harrison Ford became Han Solo again...

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