Interesting. I don’t think that I’ve ever had it happen where I’m about equally ‘Meh’ about a film adaptation as I am about the original source material. For a good chunk of time, I’d heard about Bigoted Asshole Orson Scott Card’s ‘epic’ sci-fi book series, with the first novel ‘Ender’s Game’ being hailed as some genius piece of work. Finally, a close friend of mine lent me his copy of the book, just so I could see what the hell all the fuss was about. And…it bored me. There were some interesting ideas, but the way that Card wrote the book just bugged the hell out of me. There was something very ‘arms length’ about the narrative, and especially, the characters.
For the uninitiated, the story follows a young boy named ‘Ender Wiggin’, who is gradually revealed to be something of a battlefield prodigy, which is handy considering that Earth is on a permanent DefCon 2 setting as a result of an attempted alien invasion 50 years earlier. Seems that the insect-like race, nicknamed ‘buggers’, were defeated by the skin of the human’s teeth, by a greatly admired pilot named ‘Mazer Rackham’; a pilot whose ‘final’ actions have become inspiration for the rigorous training program that chosen youngsters must endure in order to join the ranks of Earth’s defence force.
The fact that I ended up feeling almost exactly the same about the flick as I did about the book says something about director Gavin Hood’s efforts, as in ‘he adapted it so well that he got the dullness too’. Hood’s first film ‘Tsotsi’ (2005) was a terrific movie that got him noticed by Hollywood and, subsequently, got him handed the reins to ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ (2009)…and we all saw how that turned out. So, Hood had something of an apology to make to sci-fi geeks everywhere, and this was his attempt. I will say this: He demonstrates far more cinematic competence here than he did when he loused up ‘Origins’.
‘Ender’s Game’ does look really nice, with some very cool sci-fi settings (Battle Room=Cool, mountain valley Launch Facility=Cool etc) intercut among some gorgeous ‘wide angle’ natural locations. The costumes, sets, ship designs and various other details really show an admirable level of effort.
The cast is decent as well, with a kid named Asa Butterfield (Hugo) showing up as ‘Ender’, while Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford is his gruff commanding officer ‘Colonel Graff’. Ford takes the growly, near-humorless demeanor that he has cultivated over the last decade and makes it work in the service of this steely character. It’s just too bad that the little wad of makeup putty they used to try to hide Ford’s earring hole was so friggin distracting! There is also Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as ‘Ender’s friend ‘Petra’ and Sir Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) as’ Mazer Rackham’, the whitest Maori EVER. Abigail Breslin (Signs) turns up for a totally useless cameo as ‘Ender’s dear sister ‘Valentine’…which is probably for the best because I hated the use of this character, and the psycho older brother ‘Peter’, in the book. Here…they’re just incidental and mostly pointless. The rest of the cast are mostly Ender’s classmates, a slew of kids of varying ages. The way these kids were handled was nice, as they do come across as exactly that…kids. Acne and all.
The problems that I had with this movie can largely be pinned on the impersonal flavor of the narrative, which I suppose can be seen as appropriate as the whole theme of the flick is the dehumanization of these children in preparation for interstellar war. It’s also very episodic and repetitive in it’s delivery. ‘Ender’ joins new class, bully’s pick on ‘Ender’. ‘Ender’ strategically fights back, ‘Ender’ makes new friends/allies, ‘Ender’ gets noticed by superiors, ‘Ender’ gets promoted, ‘Ender’ joins new class, bully’s pick on ‘Ender’…etc. All the while, we endlessly see kids in classrooms or floating around the Battle Room in strategic, non-lethal zero-G combat (which is done pretty damn well, admittedly). This is almost the entire content of the 2nd Act. It’s all leading up to ‘The Big Graduation’ simulation battle, which anyone who’s read the book will know also leads to The Big Twist, which in the book actually worked better than it does here.
Something else that didn’t help was there was NO sense of danger, with the exception of maybe ‘Ender’ getting beaten up in the shower by bullies. Given the intense military setting and omnipresent ‘war footing’, nothing ever really feels like it’s at stake. With the exception of a slick jet fighter vs flying saucer dogfight at the beginning, there isn’t one on-screen human death, and it never feels like the chance for one is there…which can definitely take the air out of a war movie’s sails.
The ending also struck me as being eye-rollingly choppy and dumb. After The Big Twist, ‘Ender’s personality seems to do a strange 180 degree flip, and he does something that I don’t believe the future military would EVER allow. In some respects, his actions could almost be defined as treasonous, considering what seems to be his New Personal Mission at the end.
The word ‘choppy’ is one I probably should’ve used more for this review, as the story very much has a ‘choppy’ feel to it. It felt like there was a lot of material missing, and as a result, the film’s pace suffered…especially in the 3rd Act.
When it’s all said and done, ‘Ender’s Game’ is a slick looking but strangely ‘distant’ and soulless affair (intentional?) that never allows our characters to feel like they’re in any kind of danger…despite all the talk of The Danger. It has some cool science fiction ideas on display but as a whole it just doesn’t come together (for me). Die hard fans of the source material may get something out of it…or they’ll be pissed right off, who knows. This is one where only the ‘Battle Room’ sequences really begged for the big screen treatment, so you’ll probably be just fine catching this on NetFlix, on a rainy Sunday afternoon.