DIRECTED BY: Gavin Hood
WRITTEN BY: Gavin Hood
STARRING: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Haliee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
In the not too distant future, Earth is suddenly attacked by a race of ruthless alien insects known as the Formics. Though humanity eventually won the war, the casualties were beyond count. To make sure the Earth is prepared for the next invasion, the now united world military launches a comprehensive program to discover and train child geniuses, hoping to maybe find the next great military commander among them. One of these is hopefuls is Andrew Wiggin, known to most as Ender. When he’s selected to attend the exclusive “battle school”, he leaves his family behind to pursue his destiny…or at least what he thinks is his destiny. Adapted from the first in a series of novels by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game has been a fixture of High School reading curricula for decades, having been read by millions of students all across the country. So after all this time, after all the false starts and controversies surrounding it, and after all the anticipation what seems to be the verdict on this movie?
…Eh, it was o.k.
My biggest problem with it seems to be shared by pretty much anyone I know who’s seen it in that it’s just too short. It feels like the filmmakers trimmed everything they possibly could just to make it as lean and “not boring” as they possibly could. Oh sure, it covers a lot of the bases and major plot points of Ender’s story, but it bounces from one scene to the other without any heed towards careful character development. The actors give it their all to make us feel like these characters are changing, but that doesn’t change to fact that most of the time changes happen arbitrarily when characters tell us they happen. “We need to keep him isolated” says Colonel Graff, the head of the battle school. Yeah good job with that, that lasted for, what, two weeks? Sure it streamlines the story a lot, but it does this at the expense of actually having us feel for the characters in any substantial way. I can see WHY they did it, but I’m not sure that it really works the way they may have intended.
On a more positive note, though, the film certainly gets the job done in the visual department. The battle room especially is pure eye candy. Having the Earth visible outside the room’s windows was a nice touch, and lends it a fantastic sense of epic scale to everything. The space battles too are pretty spectacular too, even if they sacrifice obscuring the movie’s twist so that they can have an IMAX worthy action sequence you’ll pay extra to see. The acting from the leads is also pretty solid, though at times it feels like they’re straining to bring emotional weight to scenes that aren’t inherently weighty to compensate for the blunt, exposition heavy script. Asa Butterfield is a perfectly good Ender given the screenplay (even if he’s a little older than the role demands). Harrison Ford is fun in the role of Colonel Graff, though I still can’t decide whether he phoned his performance in or not. I mean it doesn’t really matter, because he seems able to deliver the films abundant exposition better in his sleep than most other actors could do giving it their all. Everyone else in the movie ranges from pretty good to competent, though that sergeant character verged on the edge of outright goofiness at times.
When you think about it, though, the book is a pretty goofy story in its own right. Probably one of the goofiest things was also probably the biggest cut in the film, that being the parallel story about Peter and Valentine’s rise to political prominence through the power of blogging. This kind of reflects a major problem with adapting a 30 year old book into a film today. The anachronisms would be impossible to avoid if you were to do a direct translation. Yeah, plotlines like that are a major part of the books, but how would one translate those kinds of anachronisms to a modern audience that isn’t familiar with the books original context? This might be kind of an unpopular opinion but I don’t think that would have worked translated into a theatrical film.
Ender’s Game is far from a disaster it could have been, it’s a perfectly competent film in its own right. As an adaptation of the book, though, it’s largely a disappointment, and what it’s done right has been done right so many times before in other, better films. The fact that it so fundamentally misses a lot of the major themes of the book makes me think that Hood might have actually based his screenplay off of a disgruntled 9th graders essay on the major themes of the book rather than the book itself. If anything, this is a book that needs to be adapted into an HBO mini-series given its scale and long term character growth. That’s kind of becoming the go to preference for people wanting their favorite books adapted, and why not? Long form story storytelling would probably translate better into another form of long form storytelling rather than a 2 hour abridgement. Doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, it was certainly an admirable attempt. Thinking about it now, though, it definitely could have been so much more than it was.