Let’s just get this out of the way now: the book is better. Big surprise, I know, but with that established, I can now talk more objectively about Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, the film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s famous 1985 sci-fi novel. While it falls short of the novel’s depth, the film effectively manages to condense the general experience into a two-hour flick that’s more thought-provoking than most blockbusters, despite a few unfortunate issues.
Set in the not-too-distant future, after Earth has been attacked and humanity almost destroyed by an insect-like race of extra terrestrial beings formally known as the Formics (and informally referred to as Buggers), Ender’s Game follows Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, Hugo), a 12 year-old genius given a hefty responsibility: save the world. In order to defend humanity from any future Bugger attacks (an argument elaborated upon to great effect as the film progresses), the military leaders have begun identifying and training child geniuses to be the future commanders of the International Fleet (because, as popular sci-fi tells us, space travel will eventually unite the many factions of earth). The logic behind this decision is rooted in the premise that these children can think more creatively and can more effectively process large amounts of data than adults.
Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford—do I really need to put a movie here?) whole-heartedly believes Ender is the “thoroughbred” (that he compares this boy to a horse should tell you something about how Graff sees Ender and the other children) who will command the human fleet to victory, and he spends much of the movie manipulating events against Ender’s favor in an attempt to “toughen him up.”
“He can never think anyone will help him,” Graff tells the much more sympathetic psychologist Major Anderson (Viola Davis, The Help) in one of their many thought-provoking, often-philosophical discussions about the treatment of the children. However, Ender needs little toughening, as he begins the film as a disconcertingly tough child, which is partially what earns him Graff’s favor.
After brutally beating a sore-losing bully at school who attempted to assault Ender, the young protagonist justifies his seemingly excessive violence by saying that he did not just want to win that fight, but all the other fights to come, too—he wanted the bully and his friends to leave him alone for good. Graff, encouraged by the response, takes Ender to Battle School, the space-station on which the children are put into different ‘armies’ and forced to battle one another in war games, which are basically portrayed as large-scale laser-tag fights in zero-gravity.
While occasionally cheesy, these Battle Room scenes are a delight to watch. Their realization on screen is one of the better, more fun elements of the film. Director Gavin Hood’s shooting these scenes from so many angles communicates the very vertigo-inducing realization that helps Ender find success: there is no up or down in space, as everything is relative. In order to find a constant, reference point, one of Ender’s companions suggests that they orient themselves according to their enemy’s gate, an idea that hints at the films moral dialogue, which pits Anderson’s caring deontology against Graff’s hard-line utilitarianism.
Ender’s free-time video game experience is also visually interesting, though it’s not nearly as effective as the Battle Room scenes. These segments, shot in the aesthetic of a contemporary animated film, are meant to be windows into Ender’s mind and inner struggles, but what works extremely well in the novel fails on screen as a distracting, underdeveloped and ultimately confusing attempt at page-to-screen translation.
The film peaks after Ender leaves Battle School for, well, I’ll just let you find that out for yourself. By that point, Ender’s Game the film has mostly secured itself as its own entity rather than attempting to weave together or include parts of the novel that tend to fail without proper elaboration. I will add, however, that the film’s concluding CGI segments are visually stunning and appropriately disturbing, as is the extremely well-performed emotional climax of Ender and Graff’s relationship that follows.
In terms of acting in general, Asa Butterfield steals the show. In lieu of Card’s elaborations of Ender’s mental processes, Butterfield gives us a nuanced Ender who can be both compassionate and psychopathic, empathetic and pragmatic. Butterfield demonstrates his range by communicating the pain of a bullied adolescent, the confidence of a genius who is mature beyond his years and smarter than everyone else in the room, the compassion of a loving little brother and more.
Ford’s Graff is properly gruff throughout the film’s entirety. Han Solo Graff is not—Ford even delivers the colonel’s only joke with such seriousness that I was a little nervous to laugh aloud in the theater. But his narrow spectrum of expression serves the character well, as Graff’s insights into what’s really happening combined with his belief that the ends absolutely justify the means add a much-appreciated sense of urgency to the film.
Likewise, Viola Davis’ sympathetic Anderson keeps the audience believably rooted in the film’s controversial nature. As she demonstrated in The Help, Davis’ ability to softly convey care is so powerful that she allows viewers to care through her.
That said, many of the film’s younger actors proved not as noteworthy. Some of the interactions early in the film seem rather forced, and against Butterfield’s dynamic Ender, some of the other students never come close to seeming like they belong in the same Battle School with him. Chiefest among these problematic characters is Moisas Arias’ Bonzo, Ender’s first Battle School commander and eventual rival. Though partially due to poor writing (or poor casting), Bonzo’s scenes were almost all humorous, and not in a way that served the film well. Nor did Ender’s siblings, Peter and Valentine Wiggin (Jimmy Pinchak and Abigail Breslin), live up to their supposed genius-level intellects, as Val came off overly emotional and Peter as flat and boring as a cardboard box rather than the Joker-like psychopath Card describes.
The film’s strained acting and its early attempts to reconcile Card’s complex novel with the limited run-time of a popular film hold it back from greatness. Rest assured, however, that Ender’s Game still communicates most of the major themes and questions that made its namesake a science fiction classic. Furthermore, it realizes most of the story’s visuals stunningly well—better even than the book, dare I say.
Whether you read the novel or not, I recommend Ender’s Game. If you are familiar with the source material, there will be problems, but hopefully you can see past them to appreciate what is done well, and if you have not read the novel, the film makes a thoughtful and visually pleasing cinematic experience. And if you like the film, I highly reccomend the book, too.
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