Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
First, let me say that I’m struggling to figure out how to review this for people who haven’t read the book (really?). Although it’s been almost 20 years since my last read, so much of what I just saw is wrapped up in what I remember, and what I wanted to see, that it’s difficult to give this an objective viewing. So I’m just going to give up trying.
Ender’s Game follows a talented young (young) military cadet, Andrew “Ender” Wiggan (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) as he navigates his way through a complex future military academy. Picked at birth, soldiers begin their training in childhood, all in preparation for a massive war with Earth’s longtime, poorly-understood alien enemy, the Formics. The title refers to the computer simulations and novel physical training undergone by the students at Battle School. What makes Ender’s Game different from any other sci-fi bootcamp movie (like 1997’s Starship Troopers, itself an adaptation of the science fiction classic by Robert Heinlein, which was poorly received but which borg.com editor C.J. and I both enjoyed) is the focus on the emotional arc of the adolescent hero. Where Starship Troopers is a straightforward shoot-’em-up action flick, Ender’s Game is a little more complex, delving into the psychology of indoctrinating the young to kill, and examining the effect of this training on young Ender himself, as he grows from a scrawny little picked-on genius to a brilliant military commander. Oh, yeah—and it’s a damn good shoot-’em-up action flick.
On the whole, I think Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game is a success—sometimes a massive success, sometimes a qualified one. Some parts left me breathless, heart pounding in awe and anticipation… and other parts left me frowning, wondering about the filmmakers’ choices. Paradoxically, I think Ender succeeds most when it stays truest to the original 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card… yet that’s also where it fails. And since I can’t elaborate on that statement without spoilers, before I go further: just go see it. I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.
Card’s novel is a beautiful, complex, and heartbreaking story with too many layers to possibly do them all justice in less than two hours of screentime. But director Hood, who also wrote the screenplay adaptation, makes a darn good effort. He keeps all the best things we wanted to see, while making logical exclusions to keep the story moving at a good clip. Yet because of those logical exclusions, and the resulting changes to the pacing of the narrative, some parts of the book that were included end up making little sense.
Notably, the storyline of Ender’s elder siblings, both of whom washed out of Battle School training for personality flaws, has been vastly compressed for the film. It’s a totally logical excision—the esoteric tale of their ongoing political machinations back on Earth would have been difficult to translate to film. We see very little of sadistic Peter; compassionate Valentine (Academy Award nominee Abigail Breslin, Signs, Little Miss Sunshine) is a much larger presence, representing in a way Ender’s conscience at home… and yet without the complexity of Valentine’s own storyline, her most crucial scene in the movie just seems bizarre. Patching the gap left in the moral of the narrative could have been handled much more deftly.
But let’s talk about what went right in this carefully-crafted adaptation. First, the casting. Butterfield is perfect, capturing Ender’s complex mix of vulnerability and potential for violence, and coming across as absolutely believable and sympathetic. It’s no exaggeration to say that getting the right Ender would make or break this adaptation, and Butterfield carries the film with skill beyond his years–exactly like Ender. Harrison Ford is right there with him, nailing the role of tough mentor Colonel Graff, in a performance that makes us cheer his return to science fiction filmdom. But the filmmakers didn’t stop there, populating the rest of the cast with a host of talented young actors to play Bean (Aramis Knight), Petra (Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit), Bonzo (Moises Arias, The Secret World of Arriety), and all the rest. Not to mention a superb performance by Academy Award winning actor Ben Kingsley.
Second: Battle School. This is exactly what we wanted to see. From the launch group to the classroom, the barracks and the fellow cadets, it’s exactly how you pictured it—and the big reason not to miss seeing Ender’s Game in the theater. This is why we waited so long for the film version—they could not have done the visuals justice before now. The anti-gravity Battle Room sequences are stunning, even better than we imagined them (possibly even better than Card imagined them!). The only complaint here is that we wanted more of them: more emphasis on the rules of the game, to start, and just more time spent in the Battle Room overall, watching the cadets fight and train. Remember all the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter franchise? Yeah, like that.
Besides the anticipation over how the anti-grav scenes would look, buzz from the way the film was promoted had loyal readers asking a single question: Does Ender know? And I planned to start this review with the answer to that question. But it’s not so clear-cut. While trying to create as dramatic and stunning a visual for Ender’s battle simulations as possible, I think the filmmakers actually made them too real—making it hard to see them as just simulations. And there was something a little off about the mood of the military brass watching Ender’s game from the control booth—where was the weeping and celebration that so shocked Ender—and the reader—in the novel? Butterfield’s reaction is beautiful and powerful, but it’s so rushed and compressed, in order to get on with the denouement, that it lessens the impact of everything he’s been through. In a movie that got so much so right, for the ending—one of the most important climaxes in science fiction literature—to falter is a serious misstep by the filmmakers. Drawing out that moment by a few more beats, letting the reality of the experience really sink in for Ender—before he dashed off to become the Speaker for the Dead—would have rounded out this adaptation into something truly spectacular.
As it is, it’s merely awesome. So much could have gone horribly wrong, and Gavin Hood did a remarkable job juggling all the critical elements that made Ender’s Game such a beloved novel. It was a long time coming, and though it’s not perfect, Ender’s Game was worth the wait.