Author Addendum: News has broken that author Orson Scott Card will NOT be receiving any backend payment based on the performance of Ender’s Game. That does not change my recommendation or score for this review, just as that doesn’t change Card’s well-documented history of bigotry that’s responsible for jeopardizing the hard work of the book’s adaptors.
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.”
“I think we all know that we’ve all won. That humanity has won. And I think that’s the end of the story.”
The former quote is the epigraph for Ender’s Game, and provides an appetizing thematic encapsulation of both the titular character, and the struggle he faces throughout both the film and the original 1985 novel of the same name. The latter quote, despite sounding exactly like dialogue spoken by the film’s roughneck colonel played by Harrison Ford, is actually something Ford himself said recently to distance the project from inflammatory comments made by the book’s author, Orson Scott Card. Any novel faces significant challenges when being adapted for the big screen, but few authors have had as much difficulty with the process as Card…probably because very few authors are quite the hate-filled gas bag that Card is.
Having made many attempts himself to bring Ender’s Game to theatres, Card has established himself as a better gymnast than screenwriter, thanks to a remarkable flexibility that allows his foot to frequently find his mouth, despite his head residing snuggly up his own ass. Like many of history’s most famed three-named figures, Card is infamous for assassination, though his own character seems to be the only target he hits with regularity, much to the dismay of fans who have waited a long time to see Ender Wiggin’s exploits in another medium.
Enter Gavin Hood, a director familiar with public praise (for 2007’s Oscar-winning Tsotsi) and scorn (for 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine), along with an independent studio willing to risk association with Card, and Ender’s Game has finally made it to theaters: bloody, bruised, and nearly 30 years after publication. As a non-reader, I can say that the forensic sketch provided by a Wikipedia synopsis of the novel suggests that Hood has been faithful in his adaptation; the book is more fleshed out, with plenty of extra details and shaggy sideplots to its name, but any diehard of the fiction should be able to watch this cinematic version of Ender Wiggin and say “that’s our man.”
So once you strip away all the controversy, and translational ballyhoo, does that make Ender’s Game a film that’s worth watching? Absolutely…which is all the more reason it’s tempting to slag on the creator of the source material for doing the actors, director and participants of the film version such a disservice by being the troublemaker that he is.
Granted, Card-related delays to the project have not been without an upshot, as time has only grown kinder to those facing the technical challenges of filming space epics full of gravity-free shootouts and buzzing swarms of interplanetary invaders. An Ender’s Game released before 2013 might not have lived up to the tricky scope of the source material, a largely character driven work that calls for a handful of massive set pieces.
Opening with a flashy dogfight between human and inhuman aircraft, star Asa Butterfield (Hugo) is forced to narrate at Mach-II to bring the non-converted up to speed. Having barely repelled an alien invasion in the unspecified future, the hawkish global government of Earth has committed itself to the sole purpose of ensuring humanity’s continued survival on an interstellar stage. To that end, children such as Butterfield’s Ender Wiggin have become all-but property of a military that believes young minds are the key to confronting an unknowable enemy.
It’s never exactly clear why the fate of mankind would be entrusted to the young and prepubescent, other than perhaps because military hardware of the future is based on the kind of simulations and touch interfaces that the word newfangled was made to describe. Similarly, early glimpses of the novel’s Starship Troopers-esque society (sans the satire) are left back on terra firma once Ender catches the eye of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), and matriculates to a rigorous boot camp orbiting the edge of our thermosphere. All pursuits of Ender’s Game are secondary to those of its protagonist, with Hood keeping him in the frame whenever possible, and Ford frequently intoning with gravely importance just how special this Ender kid is.
It’s a smartly calculated decision by Hood as both director and adaptor, allowing him to condense the bulk of the source material that matters into the character that matters most. Even with the singular point of interest though, Ender’s Game has a lot of ground to cover in its 2-hour runtime.
Ender and the story’s progression resembles what you’ll find in most video games, with level ups and new stages appearing as the hero overcomes obstacles at a swiftly regimented pace (Ender even scores a promotion for outwitting an iPad app). This allows the film to move through its hero’s journey/coming-of-age story structure with engaging efficiency, though a healthy supporting cast, that includes Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley, often gets left to drift as satellite to the Ender Wiggin Show.
Fittingly then, the film rests largely on the shoulders of its young lead. Save for a couple bum line readings, Butterfield handles the pressure with aplomb, perhaps assisted by the fact that Ender’s character calls for a degree of stiffness that most young actors aren’t supposed to convey, but do nonetheless. It’s an intensely reflective performance, as Butterfield is often required to adapt to the emotional rhythms of whoever he’s sharing the screen with. The complexities of the role form the ideological wellspring from which the film’s most interesting ideas develop. Human empathy as both the greatest deterrent to, and weapon for violence is a struggle that bears out into themes which have aged well since ’85, or found new relevance since then.
The morality of child soldiers makes for heady and dark material that, along with the extraterrestrial setting, was likely just as big a roadblock to an Ender’s Game film as the man responsible for coming up with it was. The use of younger characters allows for moments of levity and excitement to bloom from grim subject matter, including the nifty battle room skirmishes the kids participate in, playing games of zero-G red rover, but with stun guns. The effects-heavy set pieces fail to capture the convincing look of the interior set designs, but Hood has the decency to trust his dramatics to elevate iffy CG, rather than hiding the action behind blurry quick cuts.
Despite stumbling across the finish line with a convoluted denouement, Ender’s Game has brains and an interest in ideas that’s been sorely missing from the rest of this year’s big budget sci-fi herd. The combined strength of Butterfield’s lead performance and Hood’s direction turn Ender’s Game into an actual movie instead of just another “for the fans” YA novel adaptation, and it’s a pretty good one at that.
Ender's Game is a surprisingly accessible YA adaptation that boasts a great lead performance, colourful visuals, and the toxic fingerprints of an author that might well doom the whole thing.