Ender's Game is a good but imperfect adaptation of the sci-fi classic
Ender's Game was published back in 1985 by the now highly revered Orson Scott Card. The book was well received, winning the Nebula Award in 1985 and the Hugo in 1986 (both for best novel). It's become curriculum reading in several classes and even suggested reading for some military organizations. It's become seminal in its field and a major launching point for a highly distinguished professional career. And it became the starting point for a very well-written and intellectual series of sci-fi novels.
For a book that has become that influential and that beloved, did it really have to take 28 years for it to be made into a movie?
Yes. Yes it did.
I would say that even ten years ago it would have been a hard sell. There are some very tricky sequences to both portray and understand. Not only does it require a nuanced filmmaker and an accomplished effects team, it very much needs a savvy audience.
I think we're finally to a point where it can be both produced and understood. But maybe only barely.
But first, the story
A half-century before our movie starts, Earth was at war with an invading force of insect-like aliens we call the Formics. They were highly intelligent and nearly wiped us all out, learning our strategies and adapting to our attacks. That is, until one lone hero made a suicide run that effectively ended the war. We may have pushed the Formics back, but nobody knows for how long.
Andrew 'Ender' Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is a young kid being both trained and monitored by an international military force hoping to groom the next great general for the human forces. He's a 'third' which means that after his parents had two promising, yet ultimately unsatisfactory children—compassionate Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and sadistic Peter (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak)—his parents got special permission to have a third child. This already sets Ender apart. And he spends pretty much his whole life being set apart.
Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees something special in Ender. He convinces Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to move Ender up to battle school on an orbiting station. One of the most notable methods they have for training involves an impressive battle simulation between warring teams in a zero gravity chamber.
While at battle school, Ender makes both friends and foes among the kids there. There's Bean (Aramis Knight), Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), and Bonzo (Moises Arias). Ender continues to strategize and plan while the others all seem to be content to play the games as they have always played them.
Ender progresses through the ranks faster than anyone before, and it begins to take its toll on the young man.
Dot dot dot
If you've read the book and you know the story, it's presented in this movie very well. I could give you a list of many elements and storylines that were trimmed or cut, but considering the nuance and layering in the book, the story is actually presented extremely well in this adaptation.
The problem is that everything seems to be done with about the same gravitas. Ender has several victories and failures throughout the movie, some large, some small, and some rather earth-shattering. But they all seem to be given just about equal weight.
In another movie, that might contribute to a rather bland tone throughout the movie. Not so here. It's never bland and never boring. But when everything is on roughly the same level, it's harder to really get that stand-up-and-cheer feeling going.
Largely I would point to the movie's pacing as the problem there. Maybe one or two more battle simulations to show how Ender works with the others on his team? Or how about a little bit more humor here or there? The story's already pretty deep and dour. If we had some strategic moments of light humor, it could have helped accent the moments of real seriousness.
Visually there is absolutely nothing to complain about. It's top notch all the way. But the story from the book is so layered and nuanced that it's really hard to do it full justice in a movie of any length. As Howard Tayler of schlockmercenary.com recently tweeted, "The movie will never be to movies what the book was to books, and it has problems, but it was a movie I liked." I think that pretty much sums up my feelings.
But what do you think of the movie?
Personally, while I will likely be adding this to my DVD library one day, I have to give this one a weak 7 / 10. With better pacing and a more dynamic tone it could have been a much stronger movie.
Ender's Game is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, thematic elements, and one fight in the boys' shower (implied nudity but nothing actually seen).