Movie Review: ‘Ender’s Game’
Plot: Based on the acclaimed novel by controversial author Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game tells the story of Earth’s desperate fight against a race of bug-like aliens known as Formics. After the Formics attack Earth and nearly destroy the planet, Earth’s leaders decide that conventional military tactics won’t work. Earth needs commanders that can think differently. Consequently, they begin to cultivate children with brilliant military minds in the hopes that a leader will emerge to destroy their enemy. Enter Andrew Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) humanity’s last hope for victory. As Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) shepherds the young military prodigy through Battle School and eventually Command School, Ender draws inevitably closer towards an ultimate confrontation with the Formics. But will the path he treads eventually cost Ender everything he holds dear, including his own humanity?
Review: Movie adaptations of beloved novels are tricky things. Sometimes they are successful (The Lord of the Rings) and sometimes not so much (Dune). I’ll freely admit that I possess a modicum of favoritism when it comes to the Ender’s Game movie because it’s my favorite science-fiction novel of all time. Having said that I’ll try to be as unbiased as I can.
Director Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game is an entertaining, if not perfect adaptation, of Orson Scott Card’s beloved novel. While sometimes heavy on the special effects and disjointed with the pacing, Ender’s Game nevertheless captures the spirit of Card’s book.
After the abysmal failure of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, more than a few fans were weary of Hood taking on this project, and understandably so. I admit I felt some trepidation. Thankfully however, Hood’s sophomore effort proves to be exponentially better than his first film. This time around Hood surrounded himself with excellent actors and a crew committed to bringing his vision to life. Moreover Hood had excellent source material to work with and his screenplay adaptation shows he’s a fan of the novel. I was pleased to see he kept the ending to the novel intact as well. It packs just the right amount of emotional punch I hoped it would. Aside from a few clunky pacing moments and one particularly awkward line that fell flat, Hood’s screenplay and overall direction succeeds. If I could make one complaint it would be that Hood failed to explore the relationship between Ender and his sadistic brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak). The novel Ender’s Game revolves around the characters of Peter and Valentine Wiggin as much as Ender.
Some may complain about how heavy special effects play a role in Ender’s Game, but I felt the gurus over at Amalgamated Dynamics did a stellar job. After all, this is a movie set almost 150 years in the future involving aliens, space ships, and other planets. Special effects are kind of key and aside from a few shots here and there it worked. I was particularly impressed with AD’s representation of the Battle Room and the Command Center at the end of the film. They were PRECISELY how I pictured those scenes when I read the novel, so kudos to them.
The casting choices for Ender’s Game were paramount to its success. Casting the wrong actors for Ender’s supporting players, especially his jeesh as it’s called in the novel, could have unraveled the entire film. Fortunately, most of the choices were superb. Aramis Knight brought the perfect amount of cocksureness and street wisdom to the role of Bean, Ender’s right hand and a double for Ender in many ways. I was also particularly impressed with Moises Arias as Bonzo Madrid, Ender’s sadistic and brutal commander of the Battle School’s Salamander Army. Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld fairs well as Ender’s closest compatriot Petra Arkanian. Her friendship strengthens Ender as a leader while simultaneously helping to maintain his humanity. Petra’s role parallels Ender’s relationship with his sister Valentine as well. While Abigail Breslin brings a certain nuance and empathy to the role, her character is severely shortchanged from what it was in the book. I couldn’t help but feel cheated because Breslin’s character was so underdeveloped. The producers removed the entire Locke/Demosthenes subplot involving Peter and Valentine from the movie. I believe for the overall tone of the film it was the right call but that dynamic could have enriched Hood’s picture that much more.
Although, Harrison Ford has been criticized over the years for pigeonholing himself into “gruff” roles, his approach serves him well in Ender’s Game. Hyrum Graff is by nature a gruff individual, someone who detaches himself from the long-term psychological effects Battle School will have on these children. His sole focus remains on winning the Formic war. Some of the best scenes in the movie involve his confrontations with Ender. Oscar nominee Viola Davis represents the voice of reason in Ender’s Game as Major Gwen Anderson. Anderson seems one of the few people concerned with the aftereffects the war will have on these children. While Davis is good, her character lacks depth and serves as little more than a cypher. Ben Kingsley kills it as Ender’s teacher and former war hero Mazer Rackham however. His first scene with Asa Butterfield is riddled with tension and the Maori tattoos on Kingsley’s face are a sight to see.
In the end it all comes down to Asa Butterfield’s performance as the titular character. Butterfield succeeds admirably in the role of Ender. In point of fact I can’t envision anyone else playing this role. Butterfield manages a pathos and vulnerability to the character I didn’t think was possible. Butterfield captures Ender Wiggin’s reluctant evolution from introvert to born leader, his difficulty in maintaining relationships, and Ender’s relationship with violence as a means to an end. Moreover, Butterfield conveys Ender’s struggle to maintain his own humanity. Not bad for an actor who’s not even sixteen yet.
Although Ender’s Game doesn’t soar to the lofty heights I was hoping for, it nevertheless remains a consistently entertaining and sometimes poignant film. This movie is definitely a game worth playing.
My rating: 8/10