Film Face-off: 'Ender's Game' vs. 'The Last Starfighter'

Film Face-off: 'Ender's Game' vs. 'The Last Starfighter'

Nov 04, 2013

Ender's Game has finally hit the big screen. Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel is about Ender Wiggin's (Asa Butterfield) journey through the International Military with a bunch of other kids, to see if he has what it takes to save Earth from an alien invasion. That got me thinking of one of my favorite (please focus on the concept of nostalgia here) 1984 films, The Last Starfighter. That's about Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) being selected to lead an alien race against an alien invasion (and save Earth in the process). While one focuses on a kid, and the other a teen, there is definitely enough common ground for a good old-fashioned Face-off. This week it's Ender's Game vs. The Last Starfighter. May the best video game player win!

 

Our Hero

Ender's Game

Ender is an outcast because... well... um, because. Is that not a good enough reason? Other kids are annoyed with him because he's smart. Ender's older brother is too mean, his sister is too nice, and the International Military is hoping Ender is just right. Ender thinks a few steps ahead, and finds his enemy's weakness, falls in love with his enemy, and then destroys them. Sound a little dark? Yup, it is.

The Last Starfighter

Alex is convinced he'll be stuck at a trailer park for the rest of his life. Sure he has a great girl named Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), but he's hoping for more. Little does he know that the trailer park's only video game is a recruiting tool for the Frontier in a battle against the Ko-Dan Armada. He's completely unsure if he's capable of rising to the challenge of flying a real spaceship.

Winner: The Last Starfighter. Ender is confident, Alex is an underdog. Ender scowls, Alex goes wide-eyed and cracks a joke. Who would you rather hang out with on the big screen? Ender's Game races through why and how the world that Ender lives in works. You don't really get a sense of what makes him tick except that bullies suck. Butterfield does a fine job with the role, but doesn't come anywhere near his fantastic performance in Hugo. Alex wants to break free, and if you were a kid in the '80s, there was nothing better to imagine than being good at a video game could actually matter.

 

The Recruiter

Ender's Game

Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) wants Ender on that spaceship, he needs Ender on that spaceship. He can't waste his time thinking that these kids are kids. He's too busy trying to save the world.

The Last Starfighter

We've got Centauri (Robert Preston), and he's a slick salesman who's desperate to get Alex to join up and get behind the controls of a Gunstar.

Winner: The Last Starfighter. Colonel Graff, more like Colonel Gruff, am I right? (Pause for laughter). Ford's Graff is manipulating Ender no matter what the costs. Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) wants Graff to think about the children, and how they could be our future, but he's completely focused on there being a future. His best line is, "You're never ready. You go when you're ready enough." Preston channels his The Music Man's Harold Hill in his Last Starighter role. That's good enough for me. It's humor that is nowhere to be found in Ender's Game. Centauri's best line was his last, "Alex, I want you to know that it was for the greatest good that I brought you back. Of course... it never hurts to be rich."

 

The Sidekick(s)

Ender's Game

Ender has a few moments with Bean (Aramis Knight) and Alai (Suraj Partha). Clearly they all respect one another. Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) helps him train in the battle room, and work on his physical combat skills.

The Last Starfighter

Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) is Alex's wingman once they get in the Gunstar. He's like an English-speaking Wookie, with all of the hope in the world. Before the battle he lived underground with his wifeoid and 6,000 little Griglings.

Winner: The Last Starfighter. OK, Grig's story about having 6,000 little kids doesn't make a ton of sense, but otherwise this guy is great. I love the banter between an awkward, in-over-his-head Alex and and overly optimistic Grig. With Ender's Game, Bean really is overlooked compared to the novel. I always hate to pick on kid actors, but Knight is just one of the many that didn't rise above average. Steinfeld's Petra doesn't ever reach a basic girlfriend level, which is a relief. There wasn't one moment of conversation between the kids that comes close to this exchange from Starfighter:

Alex: There's no fleet, no Starfighters, no plan? One ship, you, me and that's it?

Grig: Exactly. Xur thinks you're still on Earth. Classic military strategy; surprise attack.

Alex: It'll be a slaughter!

Grig: That's the spirit.

Alex: No, my slaughter! One ship against the whole armada?

Grig: Yes, one Gunstar against the armada. I've always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds.

 

The Curveballs

Ender's Game

There is a mind game that Ender plays on what looks like an iPad. Within this game, Ender is able to explore his psyche, while Colonel Graff watches and analyzes. Things take a weird turn, which leads to a mouse entering a brain, and that's just the beginning.

The Last Starfighter

Centauri realizes that everyone will wonder where Alex went. So, instead of creating some basic story about him leaving town, an android named Beta is left to take his place.

Winner: Tie. Both these things give me the creeps and both are underexplored. It takes people way too long to figure out Beta Alex isn't actually Alex. Plus, every second spent back on Earth is time that we could have been in space on the Gunstar or meeting other Starfighters (before Alex became the last one). With Ender's Game the mind game is odd, then forgotten, and then terribly important. Unfortunately, it never hits a high point in the film when Ender is playing the game, or remembering why it is important.

 

The Ending

Ender's Game

Ender has to pass a final test to see if he is worthy of leading the International Military in their battle against the Formic (aliens that look like bugs).

The Last Starfighter

As the last Starfighter, in the last Gunstar, Alex and Grig attack the armada even though they are terribly outnumbered.

Winner: Ender's Game. There is finally a battle sequence that looks and feels impressive in Ender's Game. Ender and his friends pull out all the stops to impress Colonel Graff and the rest of the ranking officers. Plus, there is a twist you won't completely see coming. Both films rely a little too much on what amounts to a special button/weapon. Game has the Molecular Disruption Device. Starfighter has the Death Blossom (an amazing name). I think most people will be shocked at the serious tone of Game, while Starfighter gives us a classic happy ending.

 

OVERALL WINNER: The Last Starfighter defeats Ender's Game, 3-1-1.

I completely stand by The Last Starfighter. You know what, if the category of "Special Effects" would have come up, Starfighter would have won that as well. It pushed the boundaries of CGI. It was pretty much that movie and TRON at that time. Ender's Game doesn't push visuals forward, though it does look as good as all of the other current science fiction films. While Ender's Game is good, it feels like it's simply rushing through the novel, attempting to hit the right beats. The battle room is severely overlooked, and would have helped showcase another side of Ender besides being "The Chosen One." Let's end this the way the victorious movie would want us to, "Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-dan Armada."

 

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