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Josh Reviews Ender’s Game

November 18th, 2013
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I read Orscon Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game when I was in college, and I loved it.  I was intrigued by the character of Ender, and captured by the tough, brutal world Mr. Card had created. I of course kept reading and, though I know I am in the minority on this one, I loved Mr. Card’s exceedingly weird, lengthy follow-up novel, Speaker For the Dead.  That books feels like it is a part of a whole different series than Ender’s Game.  It’s got to be one of the most bizarre sequels I have ever encountered, in that it takes the story in an entirely different direction.  While Speaker For the Dead is something of a letdown for people looking for a follow-up to the events of Ender’s Game, I think it’s a pretty great sci-fi novel when taken on its own.  I read Mr. Card’s next two Ender’s books, Xenocide and Children of the Mind, but by the end of that fourth book I had lost interest.  When Mr. Card returned to the timeframe and setting of Ender’s Game with a new series of novels, I was intrigued, but while Ender’s Shadow has been sitting on my bookshelf for about a decade, I have never gotten around to reading it.

I have been rooting for Ender’s Game to be made into a film since I first read it, almost twenty years ago.  But paradoxically, as the film adaptation finally became a reality over the last year or two, my enthusiasm dimmed.  I am not a fan of director Gavin Hood (although the world seems to disagree with me, I did not like his film Tsotsi, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a catastrophe of epic proportions), and the involvement of Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman (whose scripts for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films have been poor, and their work on the Transformers films and Cowboys and Aliens has also been unfortunate in the extreme) worried me.  So I did not enter the film adaptation of Ender’s Game with a lot of hope.

In some ways, then, I was pleasantly surprised that the bulk of the film is actually pretty good.  There is a lot of the middle of the film that I quite enjoyed.  However, the problem is that the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes are incredibly ham-handed and amateurish, and as a result leave the film crippled, just a mildly diverting adventure as opposed to the powerful sci-fi tale that this story should be.

Let’s start with the opening, which is just a mess of heavy-handed exposition and choppy scenes.  Rather than focusing on letting us get to know this smart, intense, weird boy Ender, and then gradually discover the world around him, Mr. Hood tries to throw a ton of back-story and world-building at us at once, and as a result I didn’t feel they sold either the character of Ender and why we should be invested in him, OR the situation in the larger world (devastated as the result of the attack of the alien “Formics” fifty years earlier.). Without our getting to really see and feel how close humanity came to being annihilated, it makes it harder to buy the military’s becoming so desperate for new thinking and new tactics that they would start training little kids.  And because they bungled his introduction, I felt it took me a lot longer to invest in the character of Ender than it should have.

The movie picks up dramatically once Ender gets accepted into the “battle school” program and is launched into space, up to the huge orbiting training facility for these bright, fierce kids the military has been cultivating.  One of the most memorable aspects of the novel were the Battle Room sequences, in which Ender and his team compete against other groups of kids in increasingly fierce, complex military war-games, all conducted in a zero-g environment.  Thankfully, the movie really nails those scenes.  I love how the Battle Room was brought to life.  The sequences in that room are my favorite parts of the film, and I wish we had spent more time there, digging deeper into the strategies and seeing more of the various competitions and Ender’s rise as a leader of the kids.  There was a lot more of that in the book, as I recall, and I miss that in the film.

The biggest question for me going into the film was how well they would handle the big twist at the end.  It seemed to me that the trailers went pretty far towards spoiling it, and I was curious as to whether the film would be able to sell that reveal or not.  There are a few moments in the film that hint at what is coming, if you know what to watch for, and I wish those had been left out.  My memory might be fuzzy, since it’s been about fifteen years since I read the book, but I don’t recall there being any hints in the book as to what was coming.  When the actual moment arrives, it lands lightly, with no where near the impact it should have had.  I feel that a more skilled filmmaker might have sold it better.  The reveal doesn’t feel like nearly as big of a shock as I think it should have.  I also wish we had seen more of the other kids’ reactions to learning the truth.  What we see of them makes it seem like they are pretty much unfazed, which also dulls the impact of the reveal.

The real downfall of the film, though, is in what happens next.  Ender discovers another truth, and rushes off of the military base.  None of the adults seem to notice or mind, which seems crazy to me, and then there is a mostly silent scene between Ender and another entity (I am trying not to spoil everything here!) that is meant to be deep and emotional, but to me came off as at best bizarre and at worst downright silly.  Then Ender rides off on a spaceship, the end.  I don’t recall if the book handled this better but my recollection is that it did.  Here in the film, the ending feels totally out of left field and very unsatisfying, as we don’t get to see the impact of what happened at the end on the other kids, or on Ender’s sister and family, or on Earth’s society as a whole.  We don’t even really get to see the impact of what happened on Ender himself.  We see him take some action, but we don’t really get inside him to understand what he is thinking or feeling, and as a result what is meant to be the emotional climax of the film feels weird and empty to me.

I loved Asa Butterfield in Martin Scorsese’s magnificent Hugo (click here for my review of that under-rated film), and he is very solid here as Ender.  He’s well-cast and he does his best with the role, but Ender unfortunately is not a strongly-written character in the film.  There just isn’t a lot of material for Mr. Butterfield to work with.  This is true tenfold of the other kids, all of whom do their best and are perfectly adequate, though we don’t get to know any of them well enough to really invest in them or care about them.  There a some decent actors in the group (including Hailee Steinfeld, who was so wonderful in the Coen Brthers’ True Grit), but not a lot of depth to the roles.  The adults, surprisingly, get a little more to do (and that is one of the film’s big-time structural problems, right there), and Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis are all a lot of fun in their roles as the military overseers training and pushing these kids.

The one kid who is totally wasted in the film is Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine.  This is another major flaw in the film, in that, to me at least, they didn’t sell the power of Ender’s relationship with either of his siblings, either his fear/hatred of his vicious elder brother Peter or his powerful, innocent connection with his sister Val.

The visual effects are strong, though inconsistent.  Some of the outer space battles are great, and in particular the zero-g environment of the Battle Room was brought to life very well.  But some of the space shots, particularly some of the exterior shots of the orbiting training facility, had a sort-of generic, cheap look to them.  (After having just recently seen the magnificent, majestic outer-space visual effects of Gravityclick here for my review — this film fell way short.  The film was better when depicting alien planets and asteroid fields and weird alien space-ships than when it was depicting realistic-ish Earth outer-space tech.)

Ender’s Game is not the catastrophe I had feared it to be, but nor is it anything near the greatness that I remember the book was.  (It is possible that the gauzy haze of memory is causing me to over-rate the book.  As I commented above, it’s been over fifteen years since I last read it.  Maybe now is the time for a re-read!)  Regardless, the film is a mildly diverting but by no means great sci-fi tale.  It’s a fine watch, but ultimately pretty forgettable.  I had dreamed of better when this classic sci-fi novel finally made its way to the silver screen.

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