Category Archives: Reviews

“Ender’s Game” (the movie): a brief review w/spoilers


I read the original “Ender’s Game” short story when it was published in Analog (August 1977). I was startled, because I knew the author, Orson Scott Card, slightly. He and I attended Brigham Young University at roughly the same time (he was a year ahead of me), I had met him a few times, and I knew him primarily as a playwright; I had even attended one of his plays (“Father, Mother, Mother, Mom”). I had no idea he was “dabbling” in science fiction.

When I saw the novel-length version of “Ender’s Game” in a bookstore (City Lights Booksellers) in San Francisco several years later (1985), I groaned a bit; I had seen other authors take short stories and expand them to novels, and they seldom held up well. The novel “Ender’s Game” was, instead, a counter-example to that trend: stronger, deeper, more emotionally engaging. It went on to with the “Best SF Novel” category in both the Hugo (fan-voted) Awards and the Nebula (writer-voted) Awards.

At some point many years ago, the movie rights were initially purchased, and “Ender’s Game” (the movie) went into what it commonly called “development hell” — never quite finding the right combination of studio, producers and director to get itself made, until just the past few years. I went into the film today with some trepedation; I have seen time and again what Hollywood has done to the science fiction/fantasy genre in general, and adaptations of material from that genre in particular. Beyond that, I was a touch underwhelmed by the trailers for the film — they were mostly whiz-bang and did little to convey the emotional depths and darkness of the novel. But my wife and I, along with our youngest (almost 28) daughter Salem, went to see the IMAX version today.

The first fifteen minutes of the film didn’t ease my concerns that much. The exposition was a touch clunky, and it was hard seeing past Harrison Ford the-action-hero to see himself instead as Col. Graff. But then one of the early scenes at the Battle School took place — one with Ender (Asa Butterfield) questioning both Graff and Sgt. Dap — that ended with Sgt. Dap saying, “I will never salute you [as a commander]”, and Ender replying (while doing pushups), “Yes, you will.” — and from that point on, I totally bought Butterfield as Ender.

The rest of the movie moved very quickly, if anything a bit too quickly. The film clocks in at just under 2 hours, which is probably as long as the studio dared make it — but I think it could have used another 20-30 minutes (and I hope for an extended director’s cut in the video release). The movie was engrossing, moving, and spectacular, particularly on the IMAX screen. It is also remarkably faithful to the novel; the few changes made were done for understandable reasons. I even eventually bought Ford as Graff, though I think that role would have been better played by someone with less accrued heroic aura — say, James Spader (who would have been both more chilling and more world-weary in that role, in my opinion).

My other great relief is that there was no Hollywood stupidity — no romance between Ender and Petra (but a touching, awkward friendship), no sugar-coating outcome of Ender’s final decisions. I will likely go see it at least once or twice more while it’s still in the theaters, something I hardly ever do.

Highly recommended. Your mileage may vary. Spoilers after the jump.

SPOILER (such as you can have for a story that’s been out 35 years)

My single biggest criticism of the film is that it did not — in my opinion — do a proper job with the Command School segment. It could have used just a minute or two more to more clearly establish that Ender thought he was fighting simulations against Mazer Rackham (played excellently by Ben Kingsley), and that they were battles that he kept losing, with him and his key ‘toon leaders burning out. The biggest omission was that in the novel, for the final “simulation”, Ender is specifically told he cannot attack the home world, but has to defeat the enemy fleets while leaving the home world untouched. When he and his subcommanders see the size of the enemy fleets, they are overwhelmed to the point of hopelessness. That’s when Ender decides that he’s going to get himself kicked out and buy relief for his friends by deliberately disobeying that directive to spare the home world; instead, he carefully guides the “Dr. Device” weapon (called the “Little Doctor” in the film) to a close-enough point and destroys the home world. Of course, the adults were hoping all along that he’d do that, but they needed to keep their hands clean of the potential xenocide. So when Ender afterward expects reprimand and dismissal, instead the adults hail him as a conquering hero — and he realizes the enormity of what he’s done.

That original sequence, as written in the novel, ties in very well with the prior attacks that Ender has experienced, with him killing an Earth schoolmate and a fellow Battle School commander, both at times when he felt he had no other option for survival. I think that would have greatly increased the emotional punch of that sequence, as would the subsequent revelation that people back on Earth, after initial praise, turn on Ender and see him as a genocidal commander. That is as much a reason as any why Ender does not return to Earth, but that doesn’t come out in the film.

That’s my main complaint. Again, highly recommended, and I hope this sets up Scott and his family financially for life.  ..bruce w..

[cross-posted from And Still I Persist]

“The Book of Eli”: a brief review (w/spoilers)

I didn’t have plans to go see “The Book of Eli”, even though the trailer made it look like “Fallout 3: The Movie” (I happen to be a big fan of “Fallout 3“). But then I read some early reviews that indicated that “Eli” might indeed be worth seeing, so my sweet wife Sandra and I went yesterday.

I’m glad we did. And she is, too.

I won’t recap the plot here, except to say that Eli (Denzel Washington) is carrying a book west across the devastated North American continent, and Carnegie (Gary Oldman) — who runs his own ruined town — wants that specific book.Oldman uses every tactic he can think of to persuade or force Eli to hand over the book.

“Eli” is a truly fascinating and remarkable movie. On one level, it’s a stylized post-apocalyptic samurai movie. On another, it is a classic Greek drama, with archetypes, divine intervention, and inexorable consequences. On yet a third, it is a morality play about Good and Evil, one that could have roots in the Middle Ages. Finally, it is a subtle yet profound treatise on faith in general and on Christian faith in particular. There are layers upon layers here, particularly as the film reaches its denouement — and said denouement means that I will go back into the theaters to see it a second time with new eyes.

My main criticism is the language, the principle reason for the ‘R’ rating. (Yes, there is violence, but it is very stylized and not much different from what you’ve seen in films such as “The Lord of the Rings”.)  It wasn’t necessary (the Greeks didn’t need it in their plays), though it did serve as a marker between characters on either side of the great divide.

The acting was excellent; the directing was outstanding; the art direction was very effective (and, yes, the film looked a lot like “Fallout 3”). What was most telling, though, was the depth of characterization and writing. “Eli” shows just how banal and shallow “Avatar”‘ is, both in story and characterization. In particular, Gary Oldman’s character — Carnegie — is vastly more believable, sympathetic and effective as an antagonist than either Parker Selfridge (the corporate scum) or Col. Miles Quaritch (the military scum) in “Avatar”.  Likewise, the religious themes in “Avatar” come across as rather goofy feel-good New Age-ism compared to the themes of faith, sacrifice, and suffering in “Eli”.

As John Notle said over at Big Hollywood, “Eli” in the end is a genre movie. But what a genre movie — possibly the best of its kind (though I have to reserve judgment until I see “The Road”).  Your mileage may vary.

SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP (including some discussion of LDS themes in “Eli”).

Continue reading “The Book of Eli”: a brief review (w/spoilers)

Intimations of humanity

Tiffany Gee Lewis has a wonderful column this morning about how kids seem to grow up overnight. Kids grow up and grow away, and we deal with that with a mixture of loss and relief (I say that as the father of nine and an empty-nester).

Years ago, when Steven Spielberg filmed Stanely Kubrick’s planned film, “AI: Artificial Intelligence” (2001), it was seen largely as a science fiction movie, and received something of a lukewarm reception. My take on the film was quite different: that is was a brilliant, painful and cautionary story about parents and children. I wrote a review to that effect which is still lodged in the eternal archives of the internet.

Reading Lewis’ column brought that review to mind, so I’ve reprinted the review below. It has spoilers, though, so if you’ve never seen the film, you may want to go watch it on your own first.

AI: A Horrific Fairy Tale for Adults [SPOILERS BELOW]

I have been fascinated by some of the sharp divisions of opinion surrounding AI as reviews (official and un-) have come out in the past few weeks. Today, my wife Sandra, our 18-year-old daughter Crystal, and I all went to see the 12:00 noon showing at the Uptown here in DC (enormous screen, great theatre). I believe that Crys was entertained but not particularly moved. Sandra and I — who between us have 9 kids from our separate prior marriages — both felt as though we had had a dentist with sharp, tiny, hand-held instruments working on our hearts for 2 1/2 hours, with pauses to let us recover, only to dig in again. Why the difference? Because we’re parents and she’s not. And therein, I think, lies much of the great divide.

AI is not hard SF. It is a cautionary horror story cum fairy tale cum myth, probably one of the best examples since Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. It takes a simple premise — what if we could teach a machine to love as a child loves, to think as a child thinks, and to want to be loved as a child is loved? — and carries it through to some excruciating, non-obvious and unflinching consequences that, I suspect, resonate primarily with parents who have had children of that age. As with Frankenstein, the core of AI involved hubris, temptation, rejection, and consequences. Hubris was the unthinking arrogance of Dr. Hobby and associates in tampering with the ecology of family and love without due regard for the unintended consequences — set, ironically, against a backdrop of melted icecaps (frankly, my first clue this wasn’t hard SF) and other unintended consequences of meddling with the physical ecology at large.

Temptation was Monica, watching her flesh-and-blood son Martin in cryonics for five years, not knowing whether a cure would ever be found for him (another fairy tale/myth motif), now being confronted with a machine, called David, that looks like a little boy, that — if and when she says the magic words — will fall eternally in love with her. Monica has a void inside which remains gaping and unhealed because of Martin’s suspension between life and death, which is what makes her temptation so real. In far too many movies and novels, the key temptation is so stupid and the consequences so obvious that I lose most or all sympathy for the character (e.g., King’s Pet Sematary). What made this movie so painful for me was how realistic I felt the temptation was. If I had one child, frozen, near death, with no clear prospect of ever having him/her back and no prospect of ever having another — yes, I might be tempted, and I think my wife even more so, to have something like David to fill that void, and we would stumble into the trap without realizing what we’ve done.

Rejection comes with the realization of the artificial, unnatural aspect of the relationship. Children grow; they mature (usually); there is always a bittersweet aspect to losing the simple, passionate love of a child, especially once they become brain-dead adolescents ;-), but one wishes children to grow and go out on their own. Kubrick/Spielberg first carefully lay out the slowly-unfolding hell of having a child-like automaton with real feelings stuck at that particular emotional age, then accelerate and compound that hell by bringing back the real child, warts and all. Can one love a machine when one’s own flesh and blood is at hand? What are our loyalties, our instincts? Martin’s and David’s reactions to each other are very believable (speaking particularly as someone who has had experience merging two sets of kids together into one family), as are frankly the different reactions to the situation between and her husband Henry (with whom, remember, David has not bonded; a classic parent/step-parent divide, one with strong Oedipal/Freudian overtones). Martin is less pleasant, less pure in his love, less physically perfect, less lovable — but his is Monica and Henry’s flesh, their progeny; having nearly lost him once, can they reject him in favor of something that runs off electric current, something manufactured? What would that say about them as humans, as parents? Yet David really loves Monica, and she has to choose between him and the rest of her very-human family.

Whatever the twists and turns of the future projected, the emotional consequences for all involved, but particularly for David, are as inexorable as they are logical. For me, one of the most haunting lines of the film is when Monica abandons David in the forest (another classic fairy tale touch), shouting cautions even as she does so, then pauses and says — as her final words to him — “I’m sorry I never told you about the world.” There’s a deep, wrenching stab at any parent’s heart, capturing the twin heartbreaks of forcing a child out into the world, away from the safety comfort of a parent’s arms (with a loss of security) and into all the pain and cruelty and tragedy that the child is likely unprepared for. David then embarks on a classic, almost Campbellian fairy tale quest, complete with faithful sidekick (Teddy) and rogue knight (Joe). He’s off to see the wizard (Dr. Know), to win the Sphinx-like riddling challenge and find out what he needs to know to become a real boy so that Monica will love him. But unlike the comforting, Disneyized fairy tales we’ve come to accept, this one holds to the hard truth — there is no blue fairy, David will never become a real boy, and Monica will never love him the way he loves her, the way he so desperately wants to be loved, as someone unique and irreplaceable — and this is where it is most wrenching. David’s hopes are raised to their highest peak by the mysterious message in the Dr. Know booth and its literal unfolding as he and Joe travel to the ‘ends of the earth’ — and then they are utterly smashed as he finds what lies at the end of his quest. His homicidal (robocidal?) rage at finding another, duplicate David is chilling and utterly consistent, calling to mind Henry’s seemingly-overblown worry much earlier in the film that “If he [David] is capable of love, then he is also capable of hate.” And then all his hopes are utterly crushed as he discovers that he himself is merely a simulacrum of Hobby’s own dead son David, and that he is being mass produced for human consumption. It leads to two attempts at suicide, one out of despair, and one based on obsession with his goal leading to indifference to everything else, trapped in a dark prison of his own making.

Some have objected to the third part of the movie, yet I think it was very much keeping in spirit with the old-style fairy tales and myths. It has the irony of robot survival and human extinction (brought on, with further irony, by a profound ice age). It has the resurrection motif, with acceptance into the company of gods or near-gods, not as an equal, but as an honored icon (much as Greek gods elevating heroic mortals to Olympus or into the constellations). And, as gods, they grant not what David wants but what they can — a single day with Monica (Clarke’s third law should be enough to deal with any quibble about DNA), with no competition from Dad or Martin or from the world at all. Again the Oedipal/Freudian overtones may seem a bit blatant, but it’s still utterly true to life, for a child of that emotional age, as to what heaven would be. And David’s choice — that he would rather have that one day, with the increased sense of irrevocable loss afterwards, than not to have it at all — goes to the heart of vast numbers of myths and tales about what is so essentially human. Indeed, David for all intents and purposes now is the human race. And as the day ends and Monica passes away, David — for the first time in his 2000-year existence — sleeps and dreams.

But does he wake?

— Bruce F. Webster, 2001.

Christmas recommendation: “Scrooge” (1970)

[cross-posted from And Still I Persist]

This remains my favorite Christmas movie (yes, even over “A Christmas Story”). It is a musical version of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”, starring Albert Finney in the title role. I am not alone in my praise for this movie; note that of the 406(!) customer reviews for it at Amazon, 366 (90%) give it 5 stars and another 21 give it 4 stars.

“Scrooge” didn’t do all that well when it was released theatrically in 1970. Movie critics didn’t like it, feeling that it was somehow silly in the light of the earlier ‘classic’ versions of “A Christmas Carol” (in particular the 1951 Alastair Sim version). For years after that, if “Scrooge” showed up at all, it was in a chopped-up, pan-and-scan version on TV; I can remember my own profound disappointment when I first saw it on TV. The VHS release wasn’t much better — while not chopped up, it was still pan-and-scan, losing much of the outstanding cinematography and choreography.

But for five years now, it’s been out on DVD in an uncut widescreen version. The movie itself has held up very well. The score and libretto are outstanding; a few of the movie’s songs have crept into the mainstream over the years (I heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing one on their weekly broadcast earlier this year). As mentioned above, the choreography is outstanding as well, as are the cinematography and art direction.

The real key, though, is Albert Finney in the title role. The director cast a young man (Finney was only in his early 30s when this was filmed) as Scrooge, figuring that it was easier to make a young man look old than to make an old man look young. Furthermore, the old Scooge is not played as a stern if elegant patrician; he’s played quite literally as a dirty moneygrubber, with a permanent hunch to his back. His Scrooge is not someone you would want to cross or meet in a dark alley.

The movie shows a bit more of Scrooge’s young life (via the Ghost of Christmas Past), giving a better sense of Scrooge’s descent from a tall, handsome, modest young man to the bent-over miser he becomes. It also adds a scene of Scrooge in Hell (as part of the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Future) that is quite humorous and at the same time chilling (so to speak). And there are a few changes in the final sequence of events as well, but they represent a payoff from things set up early on.

At its core, though, “Scrooge” fully delivers on Dickens’ original message of regret, repentance, and redemption, and it does so in a powerful fashion. I recommend it without reservation.  ..bruce w..

The Atlantic analyzes the “Twilight” novels

Caitlin Flanagan looks at the “Twlight” phenomenon and, I think, puts her finger on exactly why these novels (which so many love to scorn) have become so popular:

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

Twilight is fantastic. It’s a page-turner that pops out a lurching, frightening ending I never saw coming. It’s also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced what I imagine long-married men must feel when they get an unexpected glimpse at pornography: slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, I thought I had subdued. The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

Be sure to read the whole thing, and then ask yourself: why are the “Twilight” novels and movie so popular among adult women as well?  ..bruce..

“Twilight”: a brief review (w/spoilers)

My wife turned to me on yesterday (Thursday) morning and said, “I’d like to see the midnight showing of ‘Twilight’ tonight.” So we went; I’m always game for seeing a moving on opening day/night. And since I’ve read all the “Twilight” novels as well, I had my own interest seeing how the movie turned out.

Answer: not bad. In fact, pretty decent, given the relatively low budget and the need to edit down a very thick book into two hours. I have to give major credit to Kristen Stewart, who does a great job as Bella; most of the other actors do quite well, also.

The biggest problem, frankly, is Edward (played by Robert Pattison). Not that Pattinson does a bad job with the role. It’s that Edward in the book is described as so impossibly good looking and physically perfect that I”m not sure any actor could have lived up to that, at least not without some major and expensive special effects. (When the movie was over, a young woman behind me said, “That’s not my Edward!”)

The biggest weakness in the (adjusted) story arc was, ironically, Bella falling in love with Edward. The film only used a minor amount of internal narration — mostly at the beginning and near the end, modeling itself after the book. As such, we had little clue as to what Bella was actually thinking while she was staring at Edward: was she mad? Curious? Trying to figure him out? Once the romance started, the characters did a better job of selling it.

The movie did a good job of introducing some humor into the story, partly because the whole audience knew that Edward was a vampire before Bella did and so tended to giggle at things he would do or say, since they knew why he was acting that way. The movie also did a good job of putting out there (with a iight touch) the humor from the incongruities of Bella being around this family of vampires.

Demographics: the midnight showing — in a large metropolitan area with lot of multiplexes around — was sold out. The audience was at least 90% female, and I’m willing to be that almost all of the males who were there were (like myself) there with a female. The female ages skewed young, but there were plenty of women in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s there. I spent time looking around the audience before the movie started and came away pretty sure that I was the oldest male there (55); in fact, I only saw two others who looked as though they could even be over 40.

All in all, a decent job. I’ll be interested to see just what it does at the box office. Spoilers (such as they are) after the jump.

Continue reading “Twilight”: a brief review (w/spoilers)