Ender's Game (2013) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence and thematic material
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Nonso Anozie, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Conor Carroll
Small role: Gavin Hood (voice)
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: Gavin Hood (based on the book by Orson Scott Card)
Review published November 1, 2013
Ender's Game is based on the popular, award-winning novel by Orson Scott Card first published in 1985, set in Earth's future in which the human race has survived its first alien attack from a bug-like alien race known as the Formics. Earth was saved by the fierce leadership of Mazer Rackham, but it has been 50 years since the last attempt at invasion, and signs point to another imminent attack. Harrison Ford (Cowboys & Aliens, Indiana Jones 4) stars as Colonel Hyrum Graff, whose task it is to find a new savior to protect Earth from an even more aggressive onslaught, recruiting children (due to their ability to quickly process information). His latest potential battle prodigy is A.E. 'Ender' Wiggin (Butterfield, The Wolfman), a teen who shows excellent tactical skills in dealing with bullies, who is recruited to International Fleet's Battle School in order to test his battle and tactics mettle against other competing children to see who has the stuff to lead us to victory against nearly impossible odds.
This adaptation will likely be dubbed, "Ender's Lame" by staunch fans of the book and those expecting a more epic film (the entire film is mostly a compendium of lengthy battle training sequences), and while Ender's Game is certainly not the stuff worth nearly three decades of waiting to finally make into a feature film, it does have its occasional moments. Most of the film's best moments come in the final half hour, when the stakes are finally raised from theoretical tactical training elements to the build-up to the highest stakes battle Earth will ever know, including a couple of major reveals that are delivered fairly well. However, until then, it's about as exciting as watching kids play virtual reality video games, because that's precisely what it is. While the special effects, with the exception of its awkward zero-gravity depictions, are top notch, the drama that leads up to these action scenes are manufactured and abbreviated, and the film mostly feels like The Hunger Games in space, without the pomp and pageantry.
I've said it before, and here I'll say it again -- it takes a visionary director to adapt a visionary novel to its fullest potential. Take Kubrick's take on Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance. Directed and adapted by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition), the end result feels like he must have adapted a book written for young adults instead of a deep, complex science fiction work that would be esteemed enough to win the prestigious Hugo Award and Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of the year. Hood's film plays like a clunky attempt at giving the classic Orson Scott Card novel a modern facelift, pushing forward a great deal of impressive special effects, and trying to make connections to the youth culture of today, including use of the phrases 'emails' (couldn't Ender have just said 'messages'?), role-playing games played on tablets, etc.
Meanwhile, we're supposed to take it on faith that there is just something about Ender that makes him an elite leadership candidate, though what we do see of him early on seems rather ordinary; why would he already be tapped as Earth's final hope because he makes observations about people floating in zero gravity that make him giggle? But really, Ender lives up to his name because his modus operandi when it comes to fighting is to strike so hard that it 'ends' his opponent's desire to fight him ever again, something the powers-that-be think the current situation calls for if humanity ever wants to be rid of the Formic menace once and for all.
Fans of the book will no doubt have a few bones of contention with the adaptation, starting with utilizing an older Ender (he is six when we meet him in the novel, rather than the tween we meet in the film), and in its compression of his training period from the span of several years into what appears to be just a few months. The importance of Ender's family during his formative early years, with the exception of his sister Valentine, is reduced down to just a couple of lines from each member before they're never heard from again. His propensity for violence is also quite toned down, as well as his desire to always be the victor, perhaps in an effort to make him more relatable and likeable.
The acting is adequate but unspectacular, which may disappoint, given that the cast, which features Viola Davis (Prisoners, Knight & Day) and Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3, The Dictator) in undemanding roles, and Harrison Ford, is quite formidable. The film, much like the book, is more about big ideas than character touches, so there's very little for the actors to do than to try to flesh out some cookie-cutter characterizations and hope there will be enough humanity injected to not seem too wooden. Though the production values are high, the build-up is flat and lacks pizzazz, especially since we know that Ender is going to be "The One", so we know he's going to come out on top during all of his training phases, which makes them seem perfunctory.
In the end, the film delves into the morality of such things as bullying, retaliation, and the methodology of war in a way that few films aimed at juvenile audiences fail to do well, if they do it at all. The themes arrive too late for them to really sink in, though it is obvious from the film's end that this feels more like a beginning of a potential franchise than a one-and-done endeavor. While it's certainly no knockout, Hood delivers on just enough to build upon, should there be a continuation of the Ender story (Card has written six Ender novels, with more on the way, not counting the Shadow novel series spinoff). Unlike Card's first novel, Hood's film is not a visionary work so much as one that seeks to be lucrative enough to stay alive, while also trying to grapple with some of the interesting concepts underneath in a way that feels more like lip service to the book's intent than an honest effort to change the hearts and minds of people in theater seats.
Regular readers of the site know that I've often criticized films for being overlong or outstaying their welcome, but Ender's Game is a case where about 20 or 30 minutes of extra build-up of its main characters, as well as letting scenes of Ender earning his peers' respect play out more naturally, would have gone a long way to making his own journey from boy to leader much more meaningful to us, instead of just a necessary plot device to get us from point A to Z in a hurry. An epic saga should feel like a saga, not a minimalist rush job to spend more time on effects and action. While Hood and company deliver just enough action and food for thought in the end to make Ender's Game passable fare, it's also hard not to see this production as a wasted opportunity to do something artistically challenging and thematically thought-provoking to last for all time, rather than to just satisfy viewers just seeking a little teen-drama escapism in between Hunger Games movies.
©2013 Vince Leo