By JOHN P. MCCARTHY, Catholic News Service | Published November 8, 2013
“Ender’s Game” (Summit)
NEW YORK (CNS)—On its surface, “Ender’s Game” (Summit) appears to be another futuristic science-fiction movie in which the fate of humanity hinges on the outcome of an epic battle waged in space. Countless aircraft will be obliterated and the hero will overcome significant adversity in order to vanquish a pernicious alien enemy.
Not so fast. Those unfamiliar with the source material, Orson Scott Card’s 1985 book of the same name, will be surprised to discover a film appreciably more thoughtful and daring. Admirers of the book will likely emerge pleased, even if the adaptation doesn’t live up to all their expectations.
Thematically, what elevates “Ender’s Game” is that it offers a searching look at the morality of war and the unthinking manner in which it is often waged. It targets our more bellicose instincts, specifically, the tendency to strike first and ask questions later.
The story rests on the premise, prescient in 1985, that warfare in the near future will be so altered by technology that children will be better equipped to conduct it than adults. As one character says, “Young people integrate complex data better than adults.” In other words, all that time spent playing video games, using computers and staring at the LED screens on electronic devices is ideal preparation for military action.
But there’s more to becoming an effective fighter than digital dexterity and comfort in the virtual realm; other skills and sensitivities are required. Because he possesses these elusive qualities, 12-year-old Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is chosen to lead the Earth’s military, the International Fleet, against an alien species called Formics. Fifty years earlier, the Formics tried to colonize the planet and were repelled thanks to the exploits of legendary pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley).
Since that war, in which tens of millions perished, mankind has been assiduously preparing for a second invasion attempt. Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), who oversees recruitment and training for the military, brings Ender to Battle School, located in a facility orbiting Earth, where trainees study and carry out mock team exercises. Ender excels and is promoted to Command School, where Rackham becomes his mentor. There, Ender and other elite fighters conduct an exhaustive battery of simulations in preparation for a showdown with the Formics.
Impressively limned by Butterfield, Ender is able to combine empathy and tactical killer instinct. His ability to understand what his opponent is thinking gives rise to his strategic brilliance, but he’s troubled by the ruthlessness his compassion enables.
Director and screenwriter Gavin Hood faced a major challenge having to condense the complicated story for the screen. He focuses on Ender’s maturation and interaction with his peers during their training and the story seems overweighted toward the buildup to the climactic battle. The visual effects, while not mind-blowing, are admirably clear and often elegant; the filmmakers should be applauded for not resorting to Imax or 3-D formats.
A key to the movie’s success is that, unlike many of this ilk, it doesn’t undercut its salubrious message by trying to have it both ways—by endorsing what it also cautions against. The anti-war motif is the end game, so to speak.
One plot feature concerning population control and a limit on the number of children families are permitted will trouble Catholic viewers. As for other objectionable elements, because warfare is conducted remotely and largely by drones, there’s nothing problematic in that context. Skirmishes between the young trainees are hard-hitting yet not excessive or graphic.
The film contains a number of scenes with fighting and bullying behavior among teenagers, several classroom slurs, some scary imagery, some mild innuendo, and one use of crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
“The Counselor” (Fox)
A peepshow of human degradation, this ensemble drama alternates between glamorizing evil and parading its most torturous results—both physical and emotional—for shock value. The plot concerns a previously legitimate lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who gets involved in a drug deal that entangles him with a shady nightclub owner (Javier Bardem), the proprietor’s sociopathic girlfriend (Cameron Diaz) and the streetwise middleman (Brad Pitt) in the transaction. When the hoped-for trade begins to unravel, the Mexican drug lords on the other side of the sale seek revenge, threatening doom not only for the errant attorney but for the love of his life (Penelope Cruz), a practicing, though far from ideal, Catholic who represents the film’s sole embodiment of innocence. Working from the debut script of novelist-turned-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, director Ridley Scott adds disdain for the church and a debased view of human sexuality to a nihilist moral vision—with repellant results. Gruesome bloody violence, sacrilegious humor and ridicule of Catholicism, strong sexual content, including graphic premarital sexual activity and masturbation, numerous uses of profanity, frequent rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O—morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
“Free Birds” (Relativity)
Two rogue turkeys travel back in time to change the “main course” of American history in this 3-D animated comedy, directed and co-written by Jimmy Hayward. The president of the United States (voice of Hayward) pardons a Thanksgiving turkey (voice of Owen Wilson), who enjoys a luxurious life at Camp David until a fellow bird (voice of Woody Harrelson) drafts him for a mission of the “Turkey Freedom Front.” They hijack a time machine and travel back to the first Thanksgiving in 1621 with one goal: Keep turkey off the dinner menu. There’s something for every age in this holiday-themed package, including cute-as-a-button characters, clever humor, a sendup of science fiction, a little (superficial) slice of American history, and a good message about looking out for each other. A few mildly perilous situations, some rude humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I—general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
“About Time” (Universal)
This romantic comedy, written and directed by Richard Curtis, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about changing your destiny at will, to win the love of your life. On his 21st birthday, a young man (Domhnall Gleeson) is given a rather unusual present by his father (Bill Nighy): the knowledge that the men in the family can travel back in time. He uses this special gift to land a girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), marry, and have a happy, perfect life. Unlike 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” where the hero betters himself as well as the world around him, “About Time” takes a more narrow view. The manipulation of others for selfish reasons, coupled with disrespect for the role of divine providence in one’s life, may leave the viewer feeling empty rather than satisfied. Implied premarital sexual activity, brief nudity, several vulgar gestures, some sacrilegious humor and sexual innuendo, much profanity and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.