Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender's GameYears after an alien invasion, in which the formic race’s attack on Earth was foiled by jet-fighter pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), Andrew “Ender” Wiggan (Asa Butterfield) is scouted for Battle School by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) of the International Fleet. Impressed by his tactical ability and ethical code, Graff keeps a close eye on Ender as he adapts to life on the space station, wins the respect of his peers and shows promise in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity training area where teams of students must work together to beat the competition.

Adapted from Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name by director Gavin Hood (who rightly swapped the buggers of the book for the formics of the film), Ender’s Game finally arrives on the big screen after various false starts and troubled productions. Originally set to star Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace actor Jake Lloyd in the leading role, with Card imploring fans to give the young actor another chance, the project was delayed until Hood came on board in 2010. Lionsgate then had to distance both itself and the movie from Card, whose involvement was being criticised by LBGT groups — some demanding boycotts — due to comments made about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Even without the history and controversy Ender’s Game had its work cut out for it if it was to find an audience. Marketed as yet another Young Adult adaptation, the film would have to compete with the likes of Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters, Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and it would have to do so with a cast that perhaps skewed older than most. Harrison Ford, as idolised as he is by men of a certain age, is unlikely to appeal to a child weaned on Harry Potter, while Asa Butterfield is best known for Hugo (more of a critical success than a box office one) and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

In fact, Ender’s Game has more in common with Starship Troopers or even District 9 than it does Twilight. This is science-fiction with subtext rather than just space opera, and taking its cues from a story written nearly thirty years ago by an out-of-touch Mormon it is surprising just how relevant it still feels today. Certain tropes will certainly feel familiar — the Battle Room is the film’s Quiddich pitch or vampire baseball field and the final act is spent mostly in a ‘Kobayashi Maru’ simulator — but the rest is rather more novel. Children are assessed by video games, war is largely fought using drones and e-mails are censored by those in command. It’s also surprisingly — and remarkably — brutal; the film could easily have been subtitled: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

Ender’s Game is a very pleasant surprise with some impressive performances (Ford and Butterfield in particular stand out, while The Kings Of Summer‘s Moisés Arias certainly makes a splash), but the script doesn’t quite do the subject matter justice. The dialogue is stilted, the pace is at times plodding and some of the set pieces are a little beyond the budget’s means. That said, with the weightless scenes standing up even in comparison to those in Gravity there must be some style to compliment the substance.

3-Stars

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (2012)

Sent to resolve a taxation dispute with the Trade Federation, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) instead find themselves under attack as Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) orders an illegal invasion of the planet Naboo. The Jedi – along with exiled native Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) – escape with The Queen (Natalie Portman) and depart for Coruscant in order to find favour with the Galactic Senate. Forced to stop on Tatooine for repairs, the Jedi happen across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) with whom The Force is unusually strong. Their discovery does not go unnoticed by Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), however, the political alias of a burgeoning Sith power.

Thirteen years ago, in a galaxy uncomfortably close to the bone, a loyal fan-base snorted in derision at a movie so apparently terrible that it not only made a mockery of their decades of devotion, but tarnished the memory of their once-hallowed original trilogy as well. Betrayed by the man to whom they had given years of their lives, a considerable sum of money and their first cinematic love, a generation found themselves sorely disenfranchised by the infamous phantom menace.

Except, they didn’t really. In the subsequent years, these individuals have upgraded their collection first onto DVD and then onto Blu-ray, continued to invest in expanded universe games and novels, and returned to watch the film’s two sequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. There is still great affection for George Lucas’ brain child, and where a generation was once inspired by the original trilogy, so too has a generation been enchanted by the new series of films. The franchise has endured, despite the continued resistance of a select few.

With Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace returning to cinema screens following a 3D overhaul, old wounds might once again begin to itch, however, as those once slighted by the film’s 1999 release question why they would ever wish to see the film again. After all, it is the same film, riddled with the same flaws, simply retrofitted in 3D. This is true, but with over a decade to let the old scars heal, I urge you to revisit The Phantom Menace and make peace with a film mired in unjustified contempt.

It’s ridiculous, after all, to think that George Lucas has somehow done his fans wrong by not making the movie that they wanted to see. It’s a shame to think that the man himself has been worn down to the point of retiring having been unfairly vilified by a group of people who just happen to have grown old and cynical faster than he can make movies. The Star Wars films have never belonged on a pedestal, their iconic status ultimately bestowed on them by misguided audiences determined to adopt the franchise as their own, resulting in a sense of entitlement that would see them become their beloved franchise’s own worst enemy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say the film is perfect, or even particularly great. Indeed, the problems with The Phantom Menace – and the prequel trilogy as a whole – have been well documented: the overly exclamatory dialogue that is rife with exposition, the embarrassingly wooden acting as actors grapple with excessive green-screen and a plot that gets too bogged down in pseudo politics to allow for any real momentum or character development. The truth is, however, that many of these criticisms can be just as easily levelled at the other films, and if we can overcome clunky dialogue and awkward plotting for them – anyone who denies there’s political jargon in A New Hope simply isn’t listening hard enough – then what’s stopping us here? Surely it can’t just be nostalgia alone?

Because – as I have already argued – there is so much to love in The Phantom Menace, particularly now that it has been spread over an extra dimension. The pod race, the lightsaber battles and the space dogfights are on a par with anything the series has to offer, and with the benefit of stereoscopy this is clearer than ever. This is one of the best conversions I have ever scene, the screen opening up to a degree reminiscent of the finest 3D experiences. Coruscant is quite simply breath-taking, while the underwater world inhabited by Naboo’s Gungan quotient dazzles as it looms into view. There is a size and scope to Lucas’ creation that is utterly cinematic – from Darth Maul to Sebulba, Mos Espa to the Galactic Senate – it’s pure genre entertainment.

But as ever, The Phantom Menace‘s biggest asset has never been the films admittedly stunning visuals. The film’s score is arguably one of John Williams’ finest; as the Star Wars theme blasts out over the opening crawl, it is impossible not to feel time rewind and yourself regress back to childhood once more. But unlike the film’s narrative – which riffs quite obviously (and unfortunately) on Return of the Jedi – this is no rehash. The usual leitmotifs are blended with a more diverse soundtrack, as the true operatics of this space opera come into play, crescendoing with the film’s piece-de-resistance: Dual of the Fates. Throw in Ben Burtt’s characteristically impeccable sound design and you have a film that is tantalisingly close to being note-perfect.

Revisiting Star Wars Episode I you will quickly realise that Jar Jar Binks is nowhere near as annoying as you remember him to be, that the midichlorians do little to demystify The Force and that the laughable Yoda puppet has been mercifully replaced with a decidedly more palatable special effect. Of course it could have been improved; the opening could be more exciting, the dialogue written by literally anyone else and Jake Lloyd replaced with someone who could actually act – if only Max Records or Dakota Goya had been around in 1999 – but even as it stands, The Phantom Menace is far from the mess your unfounded prejudices would have you believe.

Imagined as the cinematic equivalent of a Saturday morning serial, The Phantom Menace serves its purpose completely. While the film may be juvenile, flawed and inconsistent, it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted, ruthlessly imagined and wildly entertaining piece of children’s entertainment. Not a travesty or a betrayal, just a perfectly serviceable slice of science fiction. Nothing more, nothing less.