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Review | ‘Ender’s Game’

endersgameWhat happens when the war is over?

That’s one question at the heart of Ender’s Game, whose eponymous protagonist remains “the hero” even as his actions veer toward villainy. The film erects some big dilemmas regarding culpability and preventative violence, but declines to offer up any real answers with the omission of a few integral plot points. The characters draw their own conclusions, and the audience is left to pick sides.

Technically, Ender’s Game is exactly the right kind of adaptation. Writer/director Gavin Hood has updated the world of Orson Scott Card’s original 1985 sci-fi novel, modernizing aspects of technology and culture, transforming the plot here and there to suit the screen. Card famously called Ender’s Game “un-filmable,” but technology and effects have finally caught up to expectation. The special effects really are tremendous, particularly in large-scale battle scenes involving virtually millions of space ships. Everyday tech like tablets and screens are reinvented with fun and flashy Minority Report controls and cerebral interfaces.

In Ender’s Game, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a typical outcast. He’s too smart for his own good and just slight enough to be inviting to the bullies of the world, including his menacing older brother. He shouldn’t have even been born; having three children is all but outlawed in this future society. But he’s smart and talented, and the grizzled Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes he’s exactly what this world, fearful of another alien invasion after the first wiped out millions of innocent people, needs.

endersgameposterGraff recruits young Ender to join Battle School, where he learns to fight in zero gravity and conduct space battles like complex operas. His superiors hope he’ll eventually prove skilled enough to command the entire human fleet against the ant-like “Formic” alien forces. It’s a video game fantasy come to life, though Ender’s not exactly the kind of kid who enjoys such things. He doesn’t play games for fun — he plays war games to win.

Butterfield is competent in his role as Ender, letting just enough emotion seep out from underneath the character’s stoic facade, and the medium-sized cast of misfit kids who gravitate toward him are all varying degrees of likable. Ben Kingsley also does a great job with the prickly and mysterious “hero” who’s introduced in the movie’s second half. Ford’s Colonel Graff, on the other hand, reluctantly growls too many of his lines, mistaking deadpan for grizzled, though his emotions sneak out as well toward the climax.

Unfortunately, Ender’s Game’s shortcomings are largely in the cutting room floor. There’s a lot of plot for a faithful adaptation of Ender’s Game to cover. Hood made an admirable attempt, and the essentials are there. There’s enough exposition that viewers shouldn’t get confused. But so much was left out of the story by necessity that the movie comes across as overly simplistic.

Butterfield and Steinfeld Discuss the Challenge of Ender’s Game

Ender’s siblings Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) are relegated to bit parts, for example, the latter appearing in just a single scene. Thus, their clever political machinations (which provide a needed change of pace and scenery from Ender’s brooding and training in the source material) are left out. Instead, the two simply serve as dual foils for Ender, extremes of compassion and sociopathic between which he can find balance.

Even without that significant subplot, there’s simply too much story for Ender’s Game to handle with much elegance. Most scenes have no breathing room, and there’s certainly no time for the film to repeat anything or for any points to be driven home. It all moves so fast; Ender grows up before the audience’s eyes, but there’s no indication how he learns the lessons he does. His peers and commanders grow to respect him, but it’s unclear why or how he’s earned their admiration besides winning every fight by any means necessary.

Hood’s version of Ender is as outwardly confident as Card’s original character, but without being inside Ender’s head the audience gets too little of his fear and uncertainty. He should be arrogant, but the film makes it feel like his victory is assured from the first scene. There’s a sense that he’s too smart to fail, which has the dual effects of lessening the tension and making him somewhat hard to root for, especially when he’s kicking floored bullies long after they’re down.

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Hood’s direction overall is enjoyable. Ender’s Game is “shiny” sci-fi at its finest: there are lots of big toys in space for audiences to gawk at, everything spinning and glimmering brightly. In epic sequences the camera sweeps through asteroid fields through atmospheres down to alien planets’ surfaces. In contrast, faces (particularly Butterfield’s) are shown uncomfortably close during intense moments, which occur frequently. This intimate effect won’t be lost on IMAX audiences. It’s a spectacle worth watching, and for many Ender’s Game fans, it will probably be plenty good enough. Those free-floating combat training scenes will certainly live up to most readers’ imaginations.

But Ender’s Game ultimately poses too many big questions without offering satisfying answers. In this world, war is a game; children grow up playing it, and in Ender’s case every game seems eventually to bleed into reality. Ender’s violence and the morally questionable actions of the adults who surround him always seem justified, but that’s because the movie is a one-sided story told by the winners. A brief scene at the end attempts to shift that perspective, but its hesitation to go all the way ultimately helps little.

Were Ender’s actions, even the ones that were out of his control, right? The novel has answers, but Hood’s more ambiguous vision of Ender’s Game doesn’t seem to have enough room for them. Fans of the source material can fill in the blanks, but other viewers might find these questions more difficult to swallow.


  • akkadiannumen

    I always thought they should split the story in two movies. Sigh… Oh well, I’ll enjoy whatever I get.

  • dave.lefevre

    “But Ender’s Game ultimately poses too many big questions without offering satisfying answers.” By NO means make your audience think and/or wonder.

  • Happily LS

    Seeing this movie is giving money to Orson Scott Card, who spends it on denying people their basic human rights. If you see it, do not pay for it.

  • Kieran Frost

    We need to all boycott this film; if it’s a commercial success they will make a sequel (maybe several); all of which means more money for Orson Scott Card to fund more anti-gay organisations and support more anti-gay legislation.

  • bobmcpherson

    Hmm every time some Gay Agenda thug posts how we must all blacklist this film and Card only makes me want to see it……….and I have no interest in seeing it but it is quickly becoming a an issue of Free speech and human freedom now…..

  • William James

    Great movie. Moments in Ender’s Game that made me think about how extraordinary some of the events were, and how hard the kids at the Battle School had it.

  • Victoria Cole

    Care tell me where you work so I can boycott it.

  • Happily LS

    Sure, but it’s a regular medium-sized company that doesn’t screw people over based on their sexual orientation, as far as I know.

  • Victoria Cole

    So let me know what the name is then. I don’t want to support a company which employs a person like you who advocates depriving others of their freedom of thought.

  • Victoria Cole

    Right. Because OSC is the only person who gets money from this film. Let’s ignore the thousands of people who are associated with the film, and who use the money they are paid to feed their families, support their children, pay their mortgages and save for their retiriment. Yes let’s all deprive these people of the right to make a living. Just because of one person. That makes so much sense.

  • Chuck777

    A movie can’t have everything from the book, cuts have to be made.

    I really enjoyed the film, it was well shot, well acted and well written. If it weren’t for OSC’s deplorable politics, this movie surly would have been a super success.

  • Leo Vader

    Disagreements aren’t depriving others of their freedom of thought just because they’re aimed at you. You can feel free to think whatever you want. Don’t turn this into a bigger issue than systematic gay discrimination

  • Victoria Cole

    And conversely I would say to you. Don’t turn someone’s right to their own opinion and their right to express that opinion into a cry of ‘persecution’. If you want to control what other people say, and what they think. Go live in a totatalitarian regime like Cambodia or Yemen or Cuba.

  • stephenmonteith

    Why should the movie give us “answers”? I like that it lets us make up our own minds about whether anything they did was “right” or not.