By: Daniel Reynolds
It’s a funny thing to experience approaching a movie adaptation based on source material you know very little about. I had heard about Ender’s Game before the movie appeared this past weekend, but I knew very little of its plot or titular character. This is in contrast to many other dealings I have with movie adaptations where, try as I might, I view them with a barely disguised obnoxious certainty. I know what this movie is going to be about, and I’ll be ready to judge what its makers got right and, most especially, wrong. There was nothing like that in me for Ender’s Game. I had just a vague notion of some promised science fiction action, the presence of a phalanx of young actors and the growling face of Harrison Ford. What more did I need?
The answer: quite a bit more. But let’s start at the beginning.
Ender’s Game is a novel written by Orson Scott Card (of which plenty has been written about as of late). It came out in 1985 and went on to win awards and acclaim before inevitably being talked about for a possible movie adaptation. Clearly, at almost 30 years since the novel’s release, this adaptation took a long time. The story, long believed to be unfilmmable, concerns a future earth that has been ransacked by an alien horde known as the Formics. For the movie version we get the broad strokes: the aliens came, killed many and were ultimately defeated by a heroic sacrifice (so basically, the plot of Independence Day). In a bid to prevent this from ever happening again, world leaders decide to train children – seen as more capable strategic and spatial thinkers – to be the military commanders of the future. At the centre of the story is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, about whom the most potent of identifiers is uttered: he is “the one”. Ender is being groomed, among a collection of the best and brightest of this future militaristic civilization, to lead an invading army and destroy the alien menace once and for all. If that sounds like a lot of plot setup, that’s because it is. And we’re just digging our way out of act one.
This is where Gavin Hood, the writer and director of Ender’s Game, comes in. Hood, having hit Oscar gold early on with the celebrated Tsotsi, was last seen in movie theatres foisting the unfortunate X-Men Origins: Wolverine on the public. I admit Hood would not have been my first choice as the adapter and director for a complicated sci-fi story. Yet, here we are, with Hood having dutifully plugged away at bringing it to life on screen. Enlisted in his effort are a talented cast of young actors matched by some solid veterans to sell the high concept material (with an almost equal amount of Oscar nominations on either side). In the kid squad, we’ve got Asa Butterfield as Ender, looking suitably innocent, yet with eyes that suggest a certain will and hunger. His skinny frame and inward countenance are part of a performance that has to convey a lot emotionally in the midst of much physically. Ender’s sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin, largely wasted, but who has the time?), and brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) get rolled out a few times to act as the embattled stand-ins for Ender’s growing sense of tolerance vs. violence. But anyway, we’re off into space!
Actually, slow down, let me get to the older cast members. Harrison Ford, looking more lively than he has as of late, plays mentor Colonel Graff fully embracing his fearsome jowly intensity. For Ford, rattling off lines about Formics and battle school and space ship formations is old hat by now. I was happy to see he can still glower with the best of them. Meanwhile, Viola Davis as Major Anderson provides a touch of heart to the proceedings. As in most of her films, Davis seems to be the only one who can reach for the soul of the matter; it is a shame she is used so sparingly. To complete the acting trinity Ben Kingsley appears late, working gamely with a faint Maori accent and decidedly pronounced face tattoos. He’s having enough fun that you could even forget to address him as ‘Sir’. Still, this movie is about the kids. Each one of them has a role to play in shaping Ender as he navigates his own maturing understanding of the world and his role in it. Now we can go to space.
But hold that thought, did I mention the battle school already? Ender’s development eventually takes him from Earth, to an orbiting space station that trains its cadets in three dimentional, zero-G, combat. These sequences allow Hood to have a little fun with kids and ray guns firing off in every direction, like some ultimate version of an American Gladiators game. Once here, we get to meet a whole new batch of kids, most of whom are interchangeable except for Petra (Hailee Steinfeld, future star) and the Napoleonic Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). Piled onto that are scenes that digress the film into some sort of CGI intense video game (a pseudo dream sequences, really), the importance of which is not satisfactorily explained. Ender’s Game is one of those films where it feels like not much is happening (i.e. the short term goals are obvious and constant) but you still feel like you are missing wide swaths of information or explanation. There are a lot of people in here talking about big ideas, suggesting at a wider universe of thought, yet we spend a lot of time in hallways and classrooms and bunks with a handful of thinly sketched characters.
As you would expect, Ender’s Game escalates to an eventual confrontation with the alien Formic horde. Somewhat remarkably, however, this feels detached and anti-climactic, as if we’re only getting part of the story (which is, of course, true). The film is definitely not reaching for some Starship Troopers like mode of alien crushing violence but for all its attempts at whiz bang effects, Ender’s Game starts to feel very much like one of the video games its stars spend so much time playing. The source material allows for an interesting philosophical look at understanding an enemy, and beyond that, reaching for empathy that transcends human logic. It even teases us, albeit very briefly, with the ethics behind recruiting, training and conditioning children to be cold blooded military leaders (video game violence taken to the nth degree). But all of that feels unfairly slight. Time must be given to battle school fight scenes, high school melodrama, and alien backstories. This is a narrative at light speed. Hood works mightily to make it work but we don’t get to care enough about Ender or his struggle because there is just no time. And what’s more, when I left the theatre, the film already dissipating in my memory, I was sure to be greeted with audience members quick to remind me: that was OK, but the book is way better.
 It’s easy to see why the book resonated so powerfully with certain kids of the 80s, buried as they were in Nintendo and Atari gear, who easily took to the idea of video game logic and reflexes as a right to power.
 I can not get over how fun it was seeing Arias in this setting, even if his performance is decidedly un-fun and one note. If you want to understand what I’m talking about check out The Kings of Summer and watch as Arias wins you over with a tremendous singular performance.