One would think after waiting nearly three decades for an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s seminal sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, and considering how protective the author has been of his work, that the film version would encompass all the questions and commentary that made it so relevant to begin with. Card’s current controversies aside, the novel has gained as many detractors as followers for its depictions of war as a game to be played, and the justifications it makes for aggressive violence, not to mention the use of children to carry out said violence. At the bare minimum, Ender’s Game taken as intended should be worthy of considerable discussion. Perhaps over the last thirty years Card realized all of those aspects were too difficult to adapt and decided that a bare bones, dumbed down version would just have to do.
Those familiar with the novel will recognize immediately that any depth or complexity has been stripped out in favor of expediency. Mostly gone is the moral dilemma that would cause children, such as brilliant 12-year-old Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) to be sent off to Battle School where they are trained to be humanity’s greatest military strategists. A devastating attack by the bug-like alien Formics has left the world devastated and in a perpetual warlike state. The world needs “a Julius Caesar, a Napoleon”, or so thinks the grizzled Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who sees something in Ender that others don’t. A bullied child with an aggressive streak only matched by his compassion, Ender is constantly fighting against becoming like his psychopathic brother, Peter, who washed out of Battle School for being too violent. His sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) also was dropped from the program for being too kind, but she’s also the only person who understands Ender. Good for her, because the rest of us don’t get that chance.
Battle School is basically a giant space station where student “armies” fight it out in zero gravity games of laser tag (although the lasers freeze the target), developing combat techniques to use against the Formic threat. From the very beginning Graff singles out Ender as the chosen one, a distinction that causes Ender to be loathed by his peers like any teacher’s pet would. But this isolation is exactly what Graff intended, slowly instilling within him the cold distance and problem solving skills a commander needs to make the hard decisions. And if Ender gets beat up along the way, then so be it. It’s good for building character or something like that.
The bulk of the film encompasses these training matches, where Ender learns to conquer his foes and make friends with a handful of the school’s brightest, namely Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), Bean (Aramis Knight), and Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy). The Kings of Summer stand-out Moises Arias makes for an awkward fit as the impetuous platoon commander Bonzo, who browbeats Ender constantly until a fateful confrontation. We never really get a sense of who any of these characters are, or why they are important to Ender’s journey. And yet, the film wants us to think they are important, especially as Ender begins to suffer an emotional breakdown from the pressures Graff heaps upon him. The same can be said for Ender’s family, who are apparently significant enough to pull him back from the brink but they are barely given enough time to be relevant. While it’s never really fair to compare a film to its source material, it’s impossible to ignore the poor decisions Card and director Gavin Hood made in choosing what to port over. Without proper insight into Ender’s upbringing we never fully understand his internal struggle. The book takes place over the course of years, when we can see the full impact of Graff’s cruel praise/abuse approach on Ender. By condensing the timeframe to the span of weeks all of that is gone. Also missing is the connection between the Battle Room sessions and Ender’s ability to command literally thousands of ships with the wave of his hands, as he does in the final epic showdown. How do these training sessions make him a competent leader? None of this is explained or given the detail necessary for the film to simply make sense.
Even when these characters are given an opportunity to shine, the performances are mostly uninspiring. Butterfield’s workmanlike approach suits the role well, getting Ender’s social awkwardness and empathy but missing out on the evolution that comes with his intellectual awakening. Ben Kingsley gives the film a much needed jolt of energy as legendary Maori fighter pilot Mazer Rackham, and with just a few words he makes you wish the story could have been about him instead. Screen greats Harrison Ford and Viola Davis are mostly flat and their bickering over the moral justification for turning kids into soldiers is just window dressing.
At least the movie looks good, and Hood deserves credit for improving substantially over the ugly mess that was his X-men Origins: Wolverine. While the glittery halls, weightless aerial combat, and glimpses of deep space are beautifully realized by DP Don McAlpee, it’s the steel-enforced military simplicity of the Battle School that carry the most impact.
With themes of war, genocide, and child soldiers Ender’s Game should be weighty material, but the film also wants to be simple enough to draw in the young adult fiction crowd. Yet it’s not especially thrilling, and despite stripping out the most complicated material it’s still a dark and humorless experience. It’s hard to tell who this Ender’s Game was meant for, but surely this isn’t the start to a potential franchise that fans of Card’s work had been hoping for.