Let’s get right to it. For everyone who loves this book, for everyone who’s been nervous about this film: it’s good. You can breathe. For myself and for all the fans of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction masterpiece, you have a film that faithfully visualizes the author’s words. Is it perfect? No. The reasons why it isn’t perfect though, are perhaps the best reasons there can be. But let’s get to the film.
Ender’s Game takes place, ok y’know what. Go read the book? No, I’m serious. Go read the book, because a summary doesn’t do it justice. Did you like Harry Potter? Well a lot of the ideas (including Quidditch) were “inspired” by Ender’s Game. Not dissing Rowling, great writers steal and she made it a completely different thing, but the core idea of a lot of Ender’s Game can be seen in her series. Ender’s Game was written in 1982. The vision of technology that has since come to pass or is clearly on its way, by Card is astounding. Read. THE. BOOK.
Sigh, dangit, I still have to try to summarize it. Blast it. Alright. Aliens called the Formics attacked the Earth and nearly destroyed it. It was only through the efforts of a single visionary commander that humanity was able to drive them off and survive. Since that day, a planetary search has been underway for a commander who could lead them again in an attack on the alien home world. Since children learn more quickly and intuitively than adults, make decisions without the encumbrance of the years; that focus was centered on finding a prodigy. A Mozart of war. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the culmination of that search.
Ender is taken to Battle School (cough Hogwarts cough) where the recruits are split into different units (cough houses cough) where they compete in battle simulations (cough Quidditch cough) where they can earn points for their squad. The top performers are promoted to command school, where they are winnowed down to a single commander who will lead the human fleet against the Formics.
Battle School is awesome! It’s my favorite portion of the book and the film does a good job with it and it’s most visually tricky component: the Battle Room. Think the X-Men’s Danger Room, but with no gravity. The best sequences in the movie are the competitions in the Battle Room. I was just grinning like an idiot watching Ender’s brilliant solutions come to light.
Asa Butterfield is some kind of miracle. He should’ve won an Oscar for Hugo. This movie lives or dies by his performance and he is magnificent. Ender is an extremely complex character. He’s freakishly brilliant, situationally ruthless, but also extremely empathetic. He’s interested not just in doing things, but in doing them right and doing them the right way. The conflicts of his nature are the cross he bears his entire life. What he’s being groomed to do is lead an army to exterminate a species, which is not something in his nature…unless it’s a game, then his competitive drive and brilliance overshadow the empathy.
Charged with keeping Ender totally focused from the minute they meet is Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford who turns in his second fantastic performance this year after his Oscar-worthy turn in 42). Ford excels in the role of making sure Ender is hated, isolated, forced to adapt, to change, to learn, but not pushing him so far that he thinks Graff has anything but his best interests at heart.
I’m going to stop my summary there because Ender’s Game has a very definitive moment, one I actually was afraid they were going to ruin, but they absolutely did not. I don’t want to give more plot away; I want you to read the book and then go see the film.
What else is fantastic? The cast is the movie’s biggest attribute. In every role, there’s an actor of immense talent. Viola Davis and Abigail Breslin have roles that last under 10 minutes onscreen, but they put everything they have into them. The kids in Battle School are all fantastic. I was a little concerned they were going to try to shoehorn a romance subplot between Ender and Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), but thankfully they stayed faithful to the book and, despite all my worrying about Gavin Hood after X-Men Origins: Wolverine, he rocks this movie and the visual effects are stunning. Some of the space battle sequences just exploded my brain with the sheer number of moving parts operating independently (which makes Ender’s brilliance all the more admirable because you stare at all these ships and see nothing but chaos and he’s conducting his command staff like a well-tuned orchestra).
OK, so what’s the problem? My chief problem with this movie is that there needed to be about 30 more minutes of it. Everything onscreen, I loved. Loved. My worry is that if you don’t read the book, I don’t know how much of what’s doing on or the import of some of the smaller details will mean to you. Things needed to be more fleshed out and I think that would have made the ending the thunderclap it is in the book. I hope there’s a director’s cut. Wanting more of everything, though, is not the worst thing in the world. I just don’t think some aspects of the film and some of the characters got their deserved due because of how fast everything moves…and because of the other problem.
This is a “first movie in a franchise” movie. I have been asking people….um what if this is successful and they want to make more because the next book in this series is as different from the first as night is from day. That’s something that was clearly in the mind of the film makers and many elements of The Speaker for the Dead, the second book, are laced throughout the movie in such a way that it’s clear to anyone who’s read them that they’re banking on heading in that direction. The problem is, as I said, there is so much in THIS movie that needs attention that seeding sequel bits throughout shortshrifts the film. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the ending, which is already being yelped about all over the net and media.
I loved everything I saw in Ender’s Game. I wanted more of everything I saw of Ender’s Game. The film…I don’t know if it stands on its own. In other words, let’s get real. This movie cost a ton of money to make. It opened with $28.1 million. Next week, Thor 2, which is setting international box office records across the globe (why are we getting OUR movies last?) is going to drop like a nuke on theaters. It will dominate until Hunger Games Catching Fire comes out and drops like another nuke. There’s no room for Ender’s Game to breathe in that environment and only strong word of mouth is even going to get it to $100 million.
Who knows? The studios are so slaved to franchises now that they’re making sequels to absolute disaster movies. The Mortal Instruments barely made anything and it’s getting a sequel. If there’s another film and they can lace it together with this to form a duology; I’ll feel they have a complete story. As it is, I don’t think just this film on its own will prove satisfying after the buzz of having a good Ender’s Game movie wears off. Those are my only real critiques. I wanted more and I want MUCH more. I have to say, those are not the worst complaints to have, but they do affect my grade because I don’t think the storytelling is as solid as it should have been. But PLEASE don’t let this get forgotten. Get out there and see this in between the hammer and bow-wielding tsunamis to come.