Disclaimer: I feel like everyone has a right to be informed about Orson Scott Card’s views before they decide whether or not to see a film based on his book. You can read about his statements here. Considering that the film reflects none of his controversial viewpoints, I personally have no issue with people deciding to see the film, though I also completely understand those who prefer to boycott. Judging on the box office performance of the film, it doesn’t seem like a decision either way will make much of a difference at this point. However, it is always good for people to be informed.
I read Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game when I was a kid and I remember loving it. It was darker and more interesting than most books aimed at my age bracket at the time (I was probably in late elementary or early middle school), and though I never read any of the book’s sequels, prequels or spinoffs the story still stuck strongly in my mind. The story’s violence, its interesting moral code, its creative universe where kids are destined to be saviors and its surprise ending were thought provoking and entertaining to my younger self. The new film adaptation is a faithful, well-crafted one, with some gorgeous effects and an outstanding cast, but it fails to capture the excitement or depth of what I remember from the book. Whether that’s because I’m incorrectly remembering the novel or because I’m older and have different tastes is up for debate.
Earth was attacked by an alien race known as the Formics in 2086, and only survived due to a desperate sacrifice by a military Commander that stopped the invasion. Many years later, the government has taken to training children for military command, working under the theory that children’s minds are more flexible and better adapted for combat tactics than adults. One cadet, Ender Wiggin (whose two older siblings both flunked out of the program), is selected for Battle School after he brutally beats a school bully when attacked. Colonel Graff thinks that he could potentially be the very best the school has ever seen. Ender’s cold, calculating mind, which led him to beat the bully not out of anger but out of strategy, is what Graff hopes to train.
At Battle School on a space station orbiting Earth, Ender and the other recruits train in tactics, using an enormous, zero gravity room to play a high tech version of laser tag, with each squad attempting to cross the room and enter the other team’s gate while preventing the other team from doing the same. Ender, under the watchful eye of Graff, shows an innate ability for creative thinking that earns him quick promotions but which alienates him from most of the other students. As time goes by he learns all he can while simultaneously surrounding himself with other outcasts at the school, yet he struggles to try to find a way to balance the emotions inside him. His older brother was dropped from the program due to his sociopathic tendencies while his sister was too empathetic for command. All the while, they are told that another attack from the Formics could happen at any time, and that only the best will make it on to Command School, where they will learn to lead in order to protect Earth.
Asa Butterfield, who was spectacular in Hugo a couple years ago, makes for a convincing Ender, and does an excellent job helping us feel the conflict with the boy. He can be brutal and unfeeling one moment and devastated by his actions the next. In fact, all of the kids in the film do a great job, from Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister, Valentine, to Hailee Steinfeld as Ender’s school companion Petra. Others like Aramis Knight as Bean, Moises Arias as Bonzo and the rest of the young cast make the most of their scenes and give the film a strong backing cast. Among the adults Harrison Ford is especially good as Colonel Graff, who pushes Ender as hard as he can because he knows (or believes) that humanity’s future hangs in the balance. He butts heads with Viola Davis’ Major Anderson, who is in charge of overseeing the students’ mental and emotional well-being and worries about how Graff’s treatment of Ender is affecting him. And then there’s Ben Kingsley, done up in Maori tattoos, who teaches and challenges Ender as he rises up the ladder and who manages to convey both a sense of compassion and communicate the threat they are all facing and Ender’s part in ending it.
Ender’s Game is a visual treat, particularly in the Battle Room and during starship battle simulations. In the Battle Room the various teams soar in every direction, unrestrained by gravity, and Ender’s strategies are show onscreen in a way that makes them accessible for the audience while still feeling like the impressive feats they’re meant to be. This style carries on to the combat simulations where the camera zooms out to show the scale of the space battles between humans and Formics before swooping in to highlight a particular maneuver or scheme. The design of the film from the look and feel of the universe to the props, sets and costumes helps make the story feel real, particularly the aspects that seem directly descended from our current technology, like the iPad-type device which Ender uses to play games in his free time.
Some interesting choices have been made in adapting the book. Ender and the other kids have been understandably aged up for the screen, and the timespan covered in the book has been compressed down from years to what seems like months, both of which suit the change from page to screen. The violence has been toned down in the film, as in the book the two boys whom Ender attacks both are killed as a result but are merely hospitalized in the film. Interestingly, one of the more abstract elements of the book has been carried over to the film. While at Battle School, Ender plays a “mind game” designed by the people in charge to assess his emotional state, in which Ender takes the form of a mouse and faces a series of tests and images to which he must react. It’s interesting to look at, but the film never does a particularly good job in conveying what it means.
In fact, the same could be said for the film as a whole. Gavin Hood, who wrote and directed the film, has created some impressive eye candy, using creative lighting and camera angles to keep things fresh and interesting. Yet despite that, nothing that happens in the film seems to have much impact. The actors are doing their best, but the script and tone of the film are such that it makes it difficult to identify with or care about the characters. On an intellectual level everything fits together, but the film never really makes you “feel” it. Even the surprise “twist” ending felt flat to me, and I don’t think it had anything to do with my knowing the ending from the book. (In fact, I wonder if the film was clear enough for viewers who had not read the book to appreciate what was happening in the end.) In the end, Ender’s Game is pretty on the outside but emotionally hollow.
I wanted to like Ender’s Game so badly. I love science fiction, and there have been so few films of this type in recent years that are thoughtful and interesting while simultaneously fun and exciting. (Gravity is a great film, of course, but not in the same vein as Ender’s Game.) The film has such great, highly regarded source material, in spite of the controversy surrounding its author. It has a stellar cast, featuring both legends and the cream of the crop of young actors. It had a budget number high enough to make its subject matter look and feel convincing. But the final result just fell flat for me (and apparently for audiences in general). I guess I’ll have to keep waiting for that perfect blend of cast, writer, director and studio. Perhaps next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy can fit the bill, despite being a superhero movie. If not, there’s always Star Wars: Episode VII on the horizon the year after. And while it may have been disappointing, at least Ender’s Game wasn’t insulting like Star Trek Into Darkness. For now, though, the wait for the next truly great science fiction epic continues.