(Video on Demand, July 2016) As a fan of the under-appreciated Good Kill, I feared that the similarly themed Eye in the Sky would feel stale and dull. How many movies about military drones and their ethical consequences do we need? But, as it turns out, Eye in the Sky runs almost entirely parallel to Good Kill (to the point where the two operators in the first film could become the protagonists of the other with very few modifications) and feels more successful at putting together a suspense thriller rather than a character drama. Helen Mirren stars as a British general at the centre of an operation that ends up reaching more and more people around the world. As western agents get closer to wanted terrorists in Kenya, efforts to confirm the target’s identity and minimize collateral damage become thornier and thornier, spanning the simultaneous actions of specialists scattered all over the planet. (At the film’s widest moment, I counted seven different groups of characters from Kenya to London—twice—to Hawaii to Las Vegas to China to Singapore) As a portrait of modern warfare, Eye in the Sky can become dizzying, and its suspense is real—especially when Barkhad Abdi’s on-the-ground agent tries to influence events near to proposed strike site. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman turns in a dignified last performance as a general who leaves humanity at the door of his briefing room. As suggested by the emphasis on drone warfare and global decision-making, Eye in the Sky is an unusual thriller, and director Gavin Hood manages to strike a good balance between drama, suspense, ethics and straight-up entertainment. Some of the technology is a few years away, but much of the film’s cerebral considerations are real and the result is a modern war movie that feels quite unlike any other—including Good Kill. Both are worth seeing, perhaps even in a single evening.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) As a confirmed Science Fiction reader with an extensive knowledge of the genre’s classics (seriously, have you read the book reviews on this web site?), the big-screen adaptation of Ender’s Game after decades of discussion and false hopes (“Jake Lloyd as Ender!”) is a Big Deal. It’s one of the genre’s biggest, most passionately-discussed novels finally brought to a wider audience, with all of the good and bad that this supposes. (I’m going to mention, but not dwell upon, the controversy surrounding novel author Orson Scott Card’s homophobia… except to note ironically that if someone reads Ender’s Game without any clue as to Card’s attitudes, they’re likely to find a sympathetic depiction of a protagonist who may very well be more interested in boys than girls.) The good news are that much of the novel’s plot has been adapted reasonably faithfully. Even the changes feel like a much-needed polish over the novel’s rougher elements: Ender being a more reasonable age, streamlining some of the plot points, toning down the “bugger” slurs, excising the “genius bloggers” angle, and including a redemption for one of the minor antagonists: It makes the novel’s most problematic edges easier to take (and if you don’t think the novel has its share of edges, go re-read it.) Much of the novel’s surprises are included as well (although, yes, the trailer does spoil one of the pivotal images) although telegraphed so hard that readers may find them underwhelming. The use of cutting-edge special effects makes not only for visually pleasing space-fight sequences, but for a convincing Battle Room as well. Gavin Hood’s direction is nicely unobtrusive, while Asa Butterfield makes for a serviceable Ender even as Harrison Ford turns in another fun grumpy-old-man performance. Ender’s Game does feel rushed (the novel takes place over years, making the progression of the protagonist more realistic –the film seems to take place over six months.), doesn’t seem to portray Ender’s isolation and exhaustion as accurately, and takes a few too many shortcuts in an attempt to set up the background information. And while the novel was explicitly written to set up sequel Speaker for the Dead, the film does the same, leading to a truly puzzling conclusion for non-readers that is unlikely to be satisfied by a filmed sequel. For a novel as flawed as the original, the adaptation does its best, and while the result is unlikely to be as much of a classic in the movie realm as the original was in the written, Ender’s Game is a decent-enough Science Fiction film. For years, in speaking with large audience about the reach of written SF compared to filmed SF, I always used Dune as my example: in pitting the best-selling SF novel of a generation compared to a mildly-successful film adaptation, I always found that more people were familiar with the film. Now I’m about to update my example to Ender’s Game: As massively successful as the novel was and as tepidly received as the film is, more people will be familiar with the film than the novel. Even die-hard written-SF fans will have to live with that.