ENDER’S GAME Movie Review
Like Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game is a worthy attempt to adapt a story that is practically unadaptable for the screen in the first place. The following review will likely contain some spoilers for non-book readers, so continue at your own risk. In the film, insectoid aliens attacked Earth at some point in the past, so highly intelligent children are monitored and plucked from their homes to “battle school,” an orbiting space station where they learn the art of war and practice mock weightless battles against each other to prepare for the next attack. Sounds like a slam-dunk, right? Unfortunately while the story seems exciting on the surface, there is a lot that doesn’t translate as well as one could imagine. And while I always think book and film should be regarded on their own merits, in this case it is worth noting why the story stayed better on the page.
The largest problem with the film are the characters themselves. A movie with a lot of child actors is never an easy one to pull off, and given that these children are supposed to be hyper-intelligent super-geniuses doesn’t make matters any easier. They look like children, but talk like adults. Reading Ender’s internal monologues was great, but it’s difficult when that has to be externalized. Asa Butterfield (Ender the “chosen one”), Hailee Steinfeld (Petra his empathetic mentor), and Abigail Breslin (Ender’s sister Valentine) have all given us excellent performances in other films, but here they feel stilted despite their best efforts. And the performances from some of the less-prominent children are often cringe-inducing (sorry whoever played Alai, but come back after you’ve been in a couple of high school plays).
Additionally, Ender’s Game ultimately boils down to a story about a bunch of kids playing video games, which isn’t that exciting to watch. The film makes these space “training” sequences visually striking, but it’s still hard to shake the feeling that it’s just a bunch of kids mashing their X-box controllers faster than anyone else can. Even the battle room, where the kids float weightless and fire at each with laser stun-guns, isn’t quite as awe-inspiring as it should be, especially considering that we’ve already been wowed by weightlessness earlier this month with Gravity. Come to think of it, Alfonso Cuaron may be the only director who could have pulled off Ender’s Game, as he not only understands space, but also children better than anyone else, as seen in A Little Princess, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien. One can only fantasize what Cuaron’s fluid battle room sequences may have looked like, or what tender performances he may have pulled out of these children when their paradigm is shattered in the story’s final twist. Gavin Hood, on the other hand, has proven to be a competent director, but not a great one. And his script, while holding on well to many of the stories central themes, could have used a polish from a “real” writer.
Adults in the film fare a little better than the children, performance-wise. Harrison Ford plays General Graff as a weathered man who knows the indignity of what humanity is doing, but swallows the bitter pill and proceeds with a stern sense of gruff righteousness anyway; it really is like seeing what Han Solo could have become had the Star Wars universe fallen on tougher times. His scenes with Viola Davis as the humanistic “Anderson” are arguably the best, as they both debate about the morality of sending these children to war and wrecking their souls. Unfortunately for Davis, her Anderson character is never even mentioned by name or even seen in the book, and so she doesn’t have that much to do (the book never even states whether she is male or female). Ben Kingsley is also an odd casting choice for humanity’s first savior Mazer Rackham, delivering a bizarre Maori accent to add to his list of ever-expanding non-white roles.
And as mentioned before, I will do my best to avoid many “but-that-wasn’t-in-the-book” arguments, but some key parts were left out of for simplicity’s sake, and the film suffers for it. In the book the children are supposed to be much younger when they start battle school, and they are supposed to be up there for years. However the film makes battle school seem like little more than a summer camp. I understand that making the kids younger and age over several years would have been nearly impossible, but it diminishes an important aspect about how these children are slowly molded into soldiers over what is basically the course of their entire developing years.
And lastly, I want to talk about the ending, the most shocking and important part of the story. The film seems to telegraph the twist far earlier than it should, as Graff, Anderson, and the Fleet General spell out that (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER!) the game is real. The climactic ending, where Ender thinks he is beating Rackham’s simulation only to discover he has annihilated an entire species, is somewhat ruined by shots of the adults watching his actions and whispering, “There are men on those transporters” and “He’s abandoning his entire fleet.” I understand that stakes must be raised for a film at times, but the resulting impact of the betrayal is severely diminished for the worse.
But then again, I knew this ending, so perhaps I was overly sensitive? Say the filmmakers did pull off the reveal. In the 21st century, does it really have the same shock value? In the 1980s when the book was published, learning that the video game you were playing was putting lives and risk and enacting genocide (“xenocide” as it’s called in the books) is pretty shocking. But today the technology of Ender’s Game already exists (the “Giant’s Drink” game looks like it’s played on an iPad)! We play hyper-realistic video games all the time, and engage in real battles overseas with drone warfare. How did a super-genius like Ender not figure out the truth? (To be fair, the parallel novel, Ender’s Shadow, explores the idea that Bean is actually fully aware of what is really going).
Even so, I applaud Ender’s Game for being different than the standard sci-fi fare. In an age where so many blockbusters (and even real life) seem to be about just “beating the bad guys” it’s nice to see a film that really questions the ways of war and our understanding both our enemies and ourselves. These themes are central to the story and arguably some of the most difficult to pull off, and yet I feel like they carried through more-or-less intact. A lot of this is helped by a both subtle and epic score by Steven Jablonsky, who has a habit of giving movies more gravitas than they deserve (he is also responsible for the soundtrack to the Transformers flicks). Ender’s Game is not perfect, but such a film would be nearly impossible to create in the first place, and if audience members are leaving the theater with thoughts about humanism (and xeno-ism?) on their minds rather than cool explosions, I think that’s just swell.