Ender’s Game has had a long, hard road getting to the big screen. Since Orson Scott Card’s science fiction classic released in 1985 a movie has been in the works, but it just couldn’t get out of development. Now, nearly 20 years after the book’s publication and with a host of sequel and spin-off books to feed off of in the future, the story comes to the theaters.
For fans of the books, which should include almost everyone since it is often assigned as high school reading, it’s a little worrisome. The trailers look more like a big action movie than the thought provoking young adults book it actually is. Where does Ender’s Game land? Squarely on Ender.
Director: Gavin Hood
Release Date: November 1, 2013
When you’re adapting a story into a film you’ve got to make cuts, and Ender’s Game definitely makes them. My thoughts about halfway through the film when I realized they had cut out an entire sub plot from the book weren’t anger at the filmmakers who clearly had to make some tough decisions to fit into two hours, but at the fact that the film couldn’t have been two movies. There’s enough there for it and unfolding Ender, the sci-fi world he lives in and the other characters around him really deserved it. But considering it’s an untested science fiction property without a truly rabid fan base you can see why the studio would want to test the waters with a single film before launching the franchise they clearly want to.
The film starts out almost exactly like the book. In the future mankind is attacked by a bug like alien race and narrowly escapes extinction. Thanks to the actions of a brilliant military hero humanity survives and the world joins together to create a plan that will allow us to defend ourselves from them. That plans means placing genius children into a military style battle school to see if they’re “the one” who will lead our forces in glorious battle to defeat the aliens. Ender (Asa Butterfiled) is believed to be that one and so he travels to battle school, which is run by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). There he must compete in battle simulations against other schoolmates, which leads to some impressive zero gravity shoot outs, as Graff and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) play mind tricks on him to see if he’s good enough to make it.
The book’s story takes place over many years, but the film rushes things along in what appears to be a matter of months. It makes the character development, motivations and a key plot point at the end a little wishy. Anderson, who plays a foil to Graff’s ends-justify-the-means attitude in the book is sadly relegated to a simple support character while Graff is veered off into an even more militaristic hard line direction. The rushed feeling makes the film feel more cliche than it actually is as Ender’s battles against school bullies seem more like an episode of a high school TV show than the true character study it should be. A light romantic relationship that isn’t present in the book is also needlessly set up for Ender and adds to this high school drama feel.
However, the film isn’t devoid of thought and ends up not being 90210 in space by a long shot. Ender is a fantastic character, forced into making horrible decisions by a military hell bent on taking action and that shows through more than you’d see in most movies of this ilk. While the relationships might be rushed they’re still there and they’re present enough to pull you in to the story, and once Ender leaves battle school things play out far better. As it barrels through the plot Ender’s Game delivers some awesome moments, but never to it’s full fulfillment.
Thankfully, Asa Butterfield makes up for almost all of Ender’s character development issues with an absolutely fantastic performance. While other characters might be shoved to the side, this is clearly Ender’s movie and Butterfield owns it. The script might not inform you too well of why Ender feels persecuted (his older brother is almost completely missing from the film) or how the isolation that Graff has set up for him is pushing him to the brink, but Butterfield’s performance definitely does. It’s a stellar turn from a child star and it elevates the film to a different level even with the condensed plotting and simplified characters.
The stellar battle sequence also push the film into full on enjoyable status. Ender’s battle training may feel like a high school sports movie, but it certainly doesn’t look like it. The effects are fantastic and the complicated battles hold together surprisingly well. More impressive is once Ender heads to command school where he and his closest friends lead simulated attacks on the enemy fleet. These battles are displayed gorgeously as a hologram around them and the decision to visually express it this way pulls what could have been a choppy series of action sequences, dragged down by cuts back to the Ender, into a stunning flow of space battle glory.
Your worst fears might be true; Ender’s Game has really been turned into an action movie, but it does just enough to still reflect the social and emotional issues that the book tackles. While a more fleshed out film (or two) probably would have done the title the justice it deserves this film does what it needs to with the time it has. There’s a lot of issues raised and characters left by the wayside, but Ender’s Game plays well.