Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lots Of Wiggle Room

Last night's film: Gavin Hood's Ender's Game.

The Earth has been attacked by an insect-like alien species, the Formics (which sounds like a new product promising to make your kitchen counters both more durable AND beautiful). Humanity was nearly wiped out, saved only at the 11th hour by the ingenuity and heroic self-sacrifice of the great military leader Mazer Rackham. But the victory only brought about a temporary reprieve; the Formics will be back, and they will have learned from their mistakes.

We join the story with humanity frantically preparing for the Formics' return; International Fleet Commander Colonel Hyram Graff is overseeing a vast recruiting and training operation. The colonel et al. realize that the flexibility and rapid-learning capability of the young is required, and the program recruits boys and girls of 10-20 years of age, looking for that exceedingly rare person who might be able to repel a Formic invasion and perhaps even to deal them a decisive blow.

The boy Ender Wiggin lies at the end of this great search, and the film spends most of its time on the difficulty of Ender's training--both the difficulty of the tasks for Ender, but also the challenge for the leaders to design training tasks that challenge and saturate the recruits without scaring them off or asking more of them than can be handled. The training regimen is, of course, based on the experiences of the forces that successfully repelled the previous Formic invasion. The leaders must incorporate everything that is known about the alien species but also keep enough flexibility to cope with the unexpected. There appears to be almost no margin for error with humanity's survival hanging in the balance.

The film is based on a 1985 novel of the same name by American author Orson Scott Card. I read the book (well, I listened to the audiobook during a couple of my marathon drives) two or three years ago. I remember it being a fairly long, dense book that told a fascinating story. Only later did I learn of Card's odious views on homosexuality and (probably not coincidentally) of his Mormon faith, and have not on that basis delved further into his writings. But this book was compelling despite his personal foibles. Enough time has elapsed between book and film that I honestly don't remember enough to critique how well this film adaptation tracks the original story. But there's much in the film to like.

Colonel Graff concedes that the existing leaders of the International Fleet (himself among them) are not equal to the task of facing the Formics; this in itself seems to indicate a degree of enlightenment. But can the colonel be taken at his word? We naturally find ourselves asking whether it is the capability or malleability of youth that is most indispensable. Youth by definition means inexperience and perhaps naivety, and yet everybody knows that things can be learned in youth that are much harder for adults.

The same genius that can see and do things that the leaders cannot might be expected to bring unforeseen talents and viewpoints to the task. A genius will see the world differently, and that very fact to some degree precludes a very thorough anticipation. Some unpredictability is inherent to the situation.

I loved that the military leadership engages in a tug-of-war about what Ender can accomplish for them versus what effects these demands will have on Ender's well-being. Concern for a young boy's health and happiness is the most natural response from any of us, and yet (as Colonel Graff says) what is the point of sparing children who will die anyway? There's a lot in this back-and-forth to chew on.

One of the key things in any science fiction film is, for me, the depiction of life in space. It's what the geeks among us dream about, and the best movies and stories of this genre have been able to place us in a situation that none of us will in reality live to see. "Movie magic" excels at making these things real for us. Textual descriptions of life and activity in a weightless environment never work as well as just seeing these things. The practice battle scenes in particular are really fun.

But they also bring up one of the expected issues with a film like this. You simply cannot condense a thousand-page book to a two-hour movie without throwing out a great deal of valuable material. The quintessential example of this is David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's [h/t L.G.!] sci-fi masterpiece Dune. Those who read the book were thrilled to see this fantastic and richly detailed world come to life; but good luck to those of you who hadn't read the book first. For those people the film was probably, at best, incomprehensible and, at worst, ludicrous, bizarre, and infuriating. (I would direct you to the 2000 TV miniseries which broke the book into three 90-minute episodes. It's still a stretch, but there's much more time there than what a single film can afford). Ender's Game is not as bad as that, though again I read the book so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask. I went with a friend who was unfamiliar with the book, and while I think he liked it slightly less than I did I believe he still enjoyed the film.

But what to do about this? There is a very natural arc to this particular story that justifies telling it in a single setting. But as my friend suggested, one wonders if this story isn't a natural fit for the mini-series format; perhaps a Netflix original. The problem, I imagine, is one of budget. Hood's film is lavishly produced, and the sets and effects are state-of-the-art. Hard to think that Netflix (or anyone) could manage that production level without the kind of funding that a big studio makes possible--and tripling or quadrupling the footage only exacerbates the problem.

Hood's film is well-cast. The role of Ender is played by the then-15-year-old English boy Asa Butterfield (probably best known for playing the title role in the 2011 film Hugo). Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, and Ben Kingsley round out the other big names in the cast, but Butterfield is in virtually every scene and acquits himself brilliantly. He must play an extraordinary person who is faced with a wide array of situations during all of which he is being intensely scrutinized. This is another of these films where if the lead fails to deliver fully they have zip. No worries here.

The film looks set up pretty clearly for a sequel, and indeed the book franchise stretches to more than a dozen novels and a similar number of stories, with another five or six novels in a related series. I have not heard positive things about the sequels, but they must have been good enough to keep the franchise afloat. I've heard no word as to whether succeeding films are in the works.

I find myself chewing on many things even a couple days after seeing the film. I liked it as I watched it, and I like it more and more with the passage of a little time. Apart from that more-or-less unavoidable problem with condensation, I'm stymied to suggest how they might have done better.

Grade: A-


CyberKitten said...

Like you I read the book a long time ago and really enjoyed it. As always with such things I both looked forward to seeing it on the big screen and worried that they had ruined a great story.

As you rightly said condensing the book into a 2 hour movie resulted in a very truncated plot (one of the crew who went to see it with me mentioned this several times in her review saying that Ender's promotion schedule was ridiculous). But I think they got to the essence of the story despite taking more than a few shortcuts.

I thought Butterfield was excellent (again my female friend - who hasn't read the book diverted with my opinion here) and played the teenager expecting to save humanity very well. I loved it when Ford said to him that he could be our Ceaser or Napoleon. "Ceaser was killed by his own people and Napoleon lost!" he shouted back. Brilliant!

Loved the zero gravity training and how Ender handled both the combat situations and the command problems he came across (or was forced into). Loved the space battles (very well done) and really liked all the subtle and not so subtle manipulation in the background. The adults were always afraid - of the Formics and the possibility that their training programme would fail - and this was pretty much their only driving force. This came across very well.

All-in-all a very good film indeed and easily made it onto my 'gold' list. As you also said, pretty much the only room for improvement is to make it longer and put more of the book in there!

dbackdad said...

"Frank", his dad, not "Brian". But you are absolutely correct about Dune. I loved the Lynch movie because I was young and my favorite book was on screen ... not necessarily because it was a good movie, which it was not. I still love that Dune but now out of nostalgia and the Lynchian campiness of it. The SyFy series of it and Children of Dune are far superior in quality and completeness.

As for Ender' s Game, I'm right on board with you two. My son and I, who both read the book, enjoyed the movie. I thought the weightless fight scenes were done well and very close to what I envisioned. The casting, especially of the young actors, was very good. They have all had prominent roles very young (Hugo, True Grit, Little Miss Sunshine) and this shows they will most likely transition well to adult roles.

Great review, as always.

William Stachour said...

Ha! Yes, Frank Herbert! I suppose I've seen the name Brian Herbert on so many more recent books that I've supplanted his name for his dad's (though I've read none of the recent books; I never even finished Frank's series).

What a great book to read with your boy. So much to talk about.

I loved Dune, like you, and the camp is very charming! But the TV mini-series helps the uninitiated along much better.

(An aside: funny how you go back later and read a post like this and I can find about a hundred things I need to fix or clarify or amend; other times I feel like what I wrote initially was spot-on. Funny, that.)

dbackdad said...

I've turned into "that guy" ... correcting for no reason. I drive my wife crazy. :-)

I've read all the Brian Herbert / Kevin Anderson books. They're very good. Not Frank, but worthy fleshing out of the Dune universe.

As for looking back on posts, I agree that sometimes I'd like to clarify something. But, I also appreciate the snapshot of what my thinking was at a particular time. I never delete a post and never edit beyond the first day (except maybe for spelling if I notice it). Warts and all, my writing is, above all else, my writing. And it can be very insightful to read those old posts.

William Stachour said...

"I've turned into 'that guy' ... correcting for no reason."

Not at all! I'm grateful for the editing! (Hell, I'm most grateful that anyone reads the posts at all.)

I don't often rehash an old post, but as with this one I'll sometimes edit to the point of re-write. On this one I wrote a bit absent-mindedly and hit the 'send' button before I was really done (That line from Richard III "Send into this world scarce half made-up.") I read it aloud to my wife (she doesn't give a shit about the content--so long as it's not political--and rather uses the sound of my voice to go to sleep. There's a Freudian gold mine right there, I'm sure) and ran across a bunch of errors. And the effort to correct these just kind of changed the landscape. It's the process that I enjoy.

dbackdad said...

"... she doesn't give a shit about the content--so long as it's not political--and rather uses the sound of my voice to go to sleep ..." -- The term is overused, but I literally LOL'd when I read this.

Susan Rabideau said...

It's because you are so calming. The dulcet sounds of your voice sooo soothing.

CyberKitten said...

Now it's my turn to lol....