Movie Review: Ender’s Game
The new film based on controversial writer Orson Scott Card’s seminal work of science fiction, Ender’s Game, does an admirable job of translating the dense book’s heart and morality. While fans may find the long-anticipated film somewhat lacking the book’s scope as well as aspects of the tortured titular character of Ender Wiggin, it does deliver a surprisingly effective sci-fi adventure that even manages to slip in a moral ambiguity or two along the way.
The film takes place in a future where an alien race called the Formics have attacked the Earth resulting in the near annihilation of the human race. Only the heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham saved the planet from what seemed like inevitable destruction. Now, years later and in preparation of a Formic retaliatory onslaught, the international Military, led by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), are searching for the next brilliant wunderkind to lead the planet’s forces against the enemy. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically gifted boy, is recruited to train at Battle School to hopefully become the next Mazer Rackham that the military is looking for. Once at Battle School, Ender easily conquers the increasingly difficult challenges and simulations put to him by the machinations of the International Military, all while attempting to figure out his own place in the world and trying desperately not to be controlled by any person or thing. As Ender’s challenges and hardship increase so does the toll his experiences take on his health and mental well being until he makes the ultimate decision whether to do what he was born to do or not.
Writer/director Gavin Hood, whose last theatrical film was the somewhat less impressive X-Men Origins: Wolverine back in 2009, is faced with the task of translating a character-driven novel into a sci-fi action film and does so with far more efficiency than many have done before with similar material. Hood also displays an obvious affinity for the source as he attempts to capture the best elements of the story in his film. The sheer breadth of the novel however, would seem to doom almost any adaptation to under represent something to focus on another aspect. That isn’t to say that Hood doesn’t deliver. In fact, if anything, it’s possible he delivers a bit too much.
Hood did well to underplay the more overtly religious aspects of the source material, though its underlying message is still present to some extent. The main fault with the film may be that it is packed with too many concepts to do them all justice and must skim over most just to fit them all in. For example, Ender’s transformation from innocent – of sorts – to physically exhausted and obedient soldier is there, but it is done more with exposition and through Asa Butterfield’s performance than through subtler methods. The bulk of the book is concerned with Ender’s absorption and navigation of Battle School, which again is something that is shown in the film but is definitely not the bulk of the story as it obviously would have slowed things down and added to the already copious running time. Then again, no one would have wanted to see the psychological torture of the first half of Full Metal Jacket done with children. The depiction here is as close as a mainstream movie can safely get (witness the homogenized starvation and poverty of The Hunger Games).
There is so much packed into Ender’s Game that many parts feel glossed over, or that they’re brought up if only to superficially explain character or plot arcs later in the film. Yet, at the same time, simple aspects of the plot are explained with merely a line or two that may leave the casual viewer wondering exactly what is going on. These quibbles aside though, Ender’s Game is, for the most part, an entertaining and engaging sci-fi film with superlative special effects and fine performances from all of the principle actors.