The task of bringing Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to the big screen would be unenviable even with modern CGI effects making the necessary special effects possible. The book packs in so many episodes of the life of the title character Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, that most assuredly much of the story would need to be cut in order to keep the resulting film from being ten hours long.
Further, the sci-fi novel predicts the internet, newsgroups, email, social media and even internet trolling, all of which are commonplace now but were surprising to see in a 1985 novel (or the 1977 story that spawned it).The setup for disappointment may have kept many viewers away, as might have unfamiliarity with the concepts this movie espouses, as might have the original author’s politics that have come to the forefront in the years between the publication of the novel and the release of the movie.
This task went to writer / director Gavin Hood, whose dramatic teeth were cut on 2005’s Tsotsi and whose sci-fi teeth were cut on 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The combination of the two sides of Hood give us an Ender’s Game film that can handle the depth and emotion that made the novel engrossing as well as the sci-fi action that made the novel so exciting.
However, the film’s difficulties begin right away. Hood cuts a great deal of the introduction of Ender (here played by Asa Butterfield) and kicks off his story seemingly midway through the plot, asking a lot of the audience when it comes to forgiving the lack of character development. Ender is established as a compassionate kid who is capable of great violence (as he should be), but this is all we know about the kid.
Soon the teenager is enrolled in Battle School, a spectacular space station on which he is taught the art of war through a series of virtual reality war games (which give the novel and film its title). The enemy army is an insect-like race called “The Formics”, whom Ender must learn the impossible task of thinking like in order to win the war and prevent the future alien invasion of Earth.
The film itself is beautiful to look at with a great deal of convincing and capable special effects. Impressively the lighting and reflections are so perfectly planned that often the CGI and practical sets are hard to distinguish. Even the obvious CGI (such as some of Ender’s actual video games) is impressive to look at. Through and through, Ender’s Game is an impressively designed and executed motion picture.
But Ender’s Game is more than just a space opera and Hood is well aware of this. Many of the subplots that diversified the novel from being simply a war book have been dropped for time, and Hood often struggles to keep the surviving storylines as diverse as they need to be to support the spectacular ending. Ender’s Games’s actual ending does work remarkably well, thanks to Hood making this goal the entire point of his screenplay.
However, many other questions are either answered vaguely or not at all. For example, in an outer-space navy that features the tough adult faces of Nonso Anozie, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis, why exactly are high school-aged children being primed to lead fleets of warships? In the novel, this manages to make sense. The movie, however, never quite fills in that blank.
Much of the weight of the film is placed not on the special effects, but on the actors themselves. For the most part they carry this off successfully. Ford alternately whispers and screams his way through his role as the Battle School’s Colonel Hyrum Graff, while Kingsley feels a lot like Kingsley as the tattooed war hero Mazer Rackham. Abigail Breslin is capable as Ender’s older sister (whose role is significantly cut from the novel) and Hailee Steinfeld is fine as fellow cadet Petra Arkanian.
Of course without a good “Ender” there can’t be much of a game. Asa Butterfield handles his American accent well and also shows a range of conflicting emotions all at the same time. In keeping with Ender’s compassion and violence, Butterfield seems to often conflict with himself, fighting back tears as he shows his warlike defiance and rebellious free-thinking that makes him valuable. When required Butterfield shows Ender’s incredible confidence and when needed he believably breaks down into the teenager he really is.
Hood’s in-depth knowledge of the novel is exemplified in his DVD commentary, one of two included on the disc. These are two of the many impressive extras included on the Blu-ray version of this two-disc set. Also included are two theatrical trailers, two documentaries and a collection of deleted and extended scenes (that also include director commentaries).
Ultimately, though Hood demands a lot of the audience, especially in the need to hit the ground running right after the opening credits, Ender’s Game does work quite well, though it never quite manages to achieve perfection. There are holes in the plot and more suspension of disbelief is required than your average science fiction film. However, none of these flaws manage to cause Ender’s Game to collapse under its own weight.
Fans of the novel know that the original book led to a series. While Ender’s Game, the film, does a fine job of setting up the possibility of these sequels, it does not end abruptly and unsatisfactorily on a cliffhanger. In that the film made only $2 million over its $110 million dollar budget (not counting marketing costs), these sequels may never be made. That’s a shame, as although it’s far from perfect and it’s in need of a few tune-ups, Ender’s Game does lay the groundwork for what could be a satisfying saga.