Far from child’s play, yet a game missing some instructions.
In the early 2000s the term “Ruined Childhood” was invented to describe having a much-anticipated movie or sequel turn out to be something that was a complete disappointment. The prime example would be George Lucas and his prequels for the Star Wars saga. Then there’s Steven Spielberg with his “Nuked the Fridge” moment in Indiana Jonesand the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Why this has any bearing on the release of Ender’s Game is simple. Sometimes there are some works that people hold so dear they worry Hollywood will ruin them as films. To which I offer consolation in the form of acknowledging that even if the film is bad you still have the book.
The good news is that Ender’s Game is not a bad film. The bad news is that it’s just okay.
This news comes from someone who was never big into science fiction literature but considers Orson Scott Card’s novel his favorite read. It’s a book that broke the ice between my college roommate and myself, and it’s interesting to note that its themes and concepts make the novel recommended reading for the lower ranks of the U.S. Marine Corps.
The author himself has reputedly said that the novel was “unfilmable” due to the amount of story that takes place inside the head of the main protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin – the Ender of Ender’s Game. Add to the development hell history of trying to get it to the silver screen – in which Card participated in a number of screenplay rewrites (this is after finally relinquishing control of the book to allow for an adaptation to be made) – and you have what looks to be a disaster in the making.
South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, who got lauded for his 2005 film Tsotsi, would have a miserable experience while developing X-Men Origins: Wolverine; 20th Century Fox wasn’t keen on some of the heavy themes Hood wanted to incorporate into the film. Ender’s Game has plenty of heavy themes and thematic content that would work well as a movie. Understandably, its sub-two hour run time necessitated a number of changes, including removal of subplots involving Ender’s siblings, Peter and Valentine. Also, the story itself takes place over the course of several years. Here it is sped up to feel like a matter of months. Nevertheless, it maintains much of what made Scott’s novel a seminal work.
Beginning by acknowledging the alien invasion that overwhelmed Planet Earth some fifty years before the first present-day scene, we learn of giant ant-like creatures called “Formics” (slang: “Buggers”) that besieged the planet. Humanity’s last hope was a daring aerial move by soon-to-be-lauded hero Mazer Rackham. The Buggers lost, but its home colony still existed several light years away. The result is an overriding sense of fear of the population of Earth. To combat this fear the military (aka International Fleet, aka IF) has spent the last five decades developing Battle School, a program in which the brightest children are put through rigorous training to find the one best suited to be commander of the International Fleet if and when the Buggers return.
Following Alice down the rabbit hole, so to speak, is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), the third child in a society that limits most families to two offspring. Ridiculed for being a “third,” Ender’s actions are keenly observed by military leaders who see potential in him to be as great as the legendary Mazer Rackham. But to succeed Ender will have to balance his sister’s compassion with his brother’s ruthlessness, both of which make him that much of a hardened Battle School cadet.
“When I understand my enemy well enough to defeat him, in that moment, I also love him.” – A.E. Wiggin
Reading the description of Ender’s emotional thought process followed by this quote and you get the sense that things will be far from child’s play for young Ender.
Separating the book from movie Ender’s Game still has some unevenness. The film is essentially two parts: the training and the battle. It’s akin to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who favored the scenes after the U.S. Marine Corps. training at Parris Island. Writer-director Gavin Hood still maintains much of what fans of the book and viewers will find endearing – that being Ender’s sharp tact and creativity. But it is the boy’s killer instinct that is most important to Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), the overseer of Battle School. Speaking out of turn to superiors and ensuring that he wins the first battle and the subsequent ones in a single encounter (read: kick his opponent while he’s down repeatedly), Ender becomes a quick standout in Battle School.
After the few zero-G training simulations offered on screen – including a moment where Ender pays homage to either the film Desperado or The Boondock Saints (take your pick) – pitting student armies against one another, the narrative quickly speeds up as it rushes through Ender’s progression through Battle School and into Command School. Missing is Ender’s depression of the Command School computer simulations and his isolation from others. The isolation is implied, but it lacks the coldness and loneliness as portrayed in the novel.
Furthermore, there are expressions and terms that are not fully explained in the film. When Ender and fellow Battle School cadet Bean greet each other as “Ho, Bean! Ho, Ender!” we don’t get any background as to how that expression originated. Also, the terms “Hedgemon” and “Strategos” are briefly mentioned but are not outlined fully – just know that they are two of the highest leader classifications (the first is political, the other is military) in the story.
When it comes to the actors most of the cast is merely window dressing. Ben Kingsley as the veteran hero/half Māori Mazer Rackham looks tough, with a facial tattoo dominating his appearance but lacks conviction as someone who tutors Ender hard enough to reach his breaking point. Abigail Breslin plays Ender’s sister, Valentine, the most compassionate character in the flick. Unlike Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer) who is totally miscast in the role of Bonzo Madrid, a cadet officer adversary of Ender’s in Battle School. True Grit‘s Haliee Steinfeld is Petra Arakanian, a friend and quasi-love interest to Ender. This is new; such interest was absent in the original work. Finally, Oscar nominee Viola Davis tries to be the voice of reason (read: Mother Hen to the children) to Colonel Graff playing Major Anderson.
Harrison Ford shines in the role of Colonel Graff, journeying to the stars to the first time since Return of the Jedi. Having lost his capacity for wisecracking (and shooting first at the Mos Eisley Cantina – and if anyone tells you different he’s a liar!), he plays the role with aplomb, yielding a stern hand and voice when necessary. Meanwhile, Asa Butterfield is believable as a scrawny but tall incarnation of Ender Wiggin.
While the film may not hit on Ender’s isolation and depression, it does hit on the ethics of defensive genocide. No easy answers are obtained to questions offered, but thankfully we don’t get any the Hollywood-style approach and get layup resolutions.
Ender’s Game lies in that grey area where the subject matter isn’t too light or too dark. However it does offer rhetorical questions on how one might act if he were engaged in a simulation versus a real-life situation. Does the end justify the means when you have no clear idea that commands ordered have life-or-death implications?
The real question will be if audiences can see through its strong visuals – the zero-G training battles are quite good – and story and dig deeper into the weightier ideas of the narrative. Ender’s Game provides more introspection that most mainstream science-fiction movies, and at the end of the day that’s what matters most.
Director: Gavin Hood Writer(s): Gavin Hood; based on the novel by Orson Scott Card Notable Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Moises Arias, Hailee Steinfeld
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!