So. Here we are. They finally made an Ender’s Game movie. For as long as I can remember the concept of “reading for fun,” some of my best friends have talked up Ender’s Game as one of the great science-fiction stories and how – because this was the age group I happened to grow up in – it should be a movie (like Jurassic Park!) However, before pressing into what was good or bad about Ender’s Game the movie, I should reveal I never actually got around to reading Ender’s Game the book. Even as a young man, having protagonists close to my age never sat quite right with me. That, and I had role-playing game campaigns to write. (It’s a wonder I ever got married.)

Unfortunately, Ender’s Game the movie will likely feel too derivative of recent cinematic “Young Adult” adaptations to modern audiences, even though several of the themes popularized in those adaptations – “chosen one” storytelling, using warfare and training as a metaphor for adolescence, militarizing children as pawns in an adult conflict – Ender’s Game so successfully keyed into earlier. Originally published in 1985 as an extension of a 1977 short story, Ender’s Game – as I understand it – apparently foresaw the current infatuation with YA novels that jabbed with Harry Potter and delivered the one-two punch with Twilight and The Hunger Games. But those stories wouldn’t likely have existed without Ender’s Game‘s critical success, and there wouldn’t finally be an Ender’s Game movie without their success as films.

(Also, I feel no conversation about Ender’s Game in the 21st century can’t go without at least considering author Orson Scott Card’s controversial stance on gay rights, a good breakdown of which can begin here. Now that I’ve done my due diligence, we’ll move on…)

Takes itself way too seriously, but doesn’t every child?

Written and directed by Gavin Hood and starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford, Ender’s Game has a lot to unpack in a relatively short amount of time. Unfolding with reams of exposition unsurprising for modern franchise-builders like this, the story goes that – at some unspecified point in Earth’s future – the planet is attacked by the insect-like Formics. Decades later, the human society we see is constructed around preparing for another attack, and training children to serve as commanders in an interplanetary fleet. Ender Wiggin (Butterfield) – the third child in a family determined to produce the perfect commander – is continually monitored and pressured by Colonel Graff (Ford) to ensure he fulfills his destiny. (His nickname, after all, is Ender.) He’s “promoted” to the Earth-orbiting Battle School, where he conflicts with other children hopeful to serve in the fleet. He easily out-thinks others using alarmingly basic problem-solving skills and combat tactics. Once Ender’s Game finally settles down into an actual story, things get better, if no less stereotypical. Ender deals with bullies, a “tough-as-nails” female student (Hailee Steinfeld), and the resentment from others brought on by success. Recreating into a kind of mental video game, Graff and his partner Anderson (Viola Davis) continue to push and pull at Ender, just like the screenplay tells them to.

Ender’s Game‘s biggest issues stem from its lack of organism. Characters aren’t so much people as ideologues, regurgitating information as if aliens had written the screenplay. They don’t speak so much in conversation as they do in oddly paced “movie dialogue” meant to make it perfectly clear what’s going on, and why it’s happening. Ender’s Game‘s version of hyper-intelligence is simplified for easy digestion rather than asking hard questions about responsibility and morality.

Oddly inorganic, like aliens wrote the script

That’s not to say Ender’s Game isn’t successful. It’s the perfect movie for 15 year-olds; children are the most important part of society, and their analytic, self-serious (and impulsive) nature is constantly rewarded. That, and the special effects are really cool. It works because it revels in archetype. It takes itself way too seriously, but doesn’t every child? Of course the story behind the Formic attack – and hero-worshipped Mazer Rackham (a hammy Ben Kingsley) – isn’t what it seems, but don’t adolescents learn that their parents, and the world, isn’t perfect? And doesn’t it shock them? When you’re in high school, the big game can be the most important thing in the world; why not elevate that emotional misplacement to the big war?

Ender as a character – and Ender’s Game – is fascinating in that he’s molded mostly by emotional abuse, and we’re meant to feel proud of the results. At times, it plays more like the diaries of a serial killer growing up in space than a hero’s journey. Thankfully, Asa Butterfield is talented enough to carry the whole picture, and portray that hypersensitivity of youth in his expressive eyes. He’s a savior who knows he’s supposed to be a savior, but doesn’t quite know what to do with that information. It’s apparently the only thing he can’t process tactically.

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And Ender’s Game is effectively built around Butterfield’s performance. The gravity-defying space effects, score and sound mix drive home the epic scope of humanity expanding into the stars, even when the economical space station sets and wirework don’t quite do the trick. Ford relishes in playing a somewhat conflicted grump who isn’t the focus of the story, while Davis provides a compassionate-enough mother figure. But, interestingly enough, her character isn’t rewarded for her efforts, which is an old-fashioned statement for a movie made in 2013. Indeed, the international cast of barely-sketched kids is interesting – and encouraging – but a gifted white kid still saves the day.

7.0

  • Strong performance from Asa Butterfield
  • Impressive special effects
  • Oddly inorganic, like aliens wrote the script
  • Feels longer than it should be

By the third act, it’s pretty clear what’s going on, yet Ender’s Game can’t quite decide what side of the argument it wants to be on. A too long coda undermines most of what has come before, muddying its emotional intentions. Is Ender’s Game communicating the fear of a totalitarian state, or does it respect its merciless methodology? Do we ask questions, or follow orders? Is compassion something to be considered in a time of war, or is careless violence really the answer? These are questions children ask themselves as they struggle with adolescence, so your enjoyment of Ender’s Game – other than the gee-whiz thrills of watching neat stuff happen in space – likely hinges on how well you’ve already answered them for yourself.

Ender’s Game, a Chartoff Productions, Digital Domain, K/O Paper Products, OddLot Entertainment, Taleswapper production distributed by Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate, is 114 long and rated PG-13.