I’ve spent the three days between viewing and reviewing Ender’s Game listlessly trying to convince myself that the film didn’t suck. I’ve succeeded marginally, but the effort it has taken has divested me of any little bits of actual pleasure I might have felt in the first half of the film. With Hollywood adaptations of beloved books, I’ve learned to low-ball my expectations. We are now at the point where anything that isn’t a train wreck is a relief. What was the last “event” movie that left me fully and completely happy? Return of the Jedi? I suppose that had more to do with my being eighteen than anything else. Sigh.
I am speaking primarily as a fan of the book to other fans of the book, so I may as well get the obligatory spoiler warning out of the way. If you haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s classic tale of a boy military genius, don’t read this review before you see the movie. (I am assuming it is too much to ask for you to not see the movie until you go read the book, but that would probably be the most likely avenue to any real pleasure.)
The film begins in the aftermath of the Formic War, an invasion of ant-like “bugger” creatures that invaded Earth and were only narrowly (and somewhat mysteriously) defeated by the legendary Mazer Rackham. A council of the world’s governments has determined that the buggers are rebuilding for a second attack. Since humans are, or will be, greatly outnumbered, success is thought to hinge on tactical geniuses. Children are bred to be warriors and trained through a combination of battle simulators and war games. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), the man in charge of the training, is convinced that Ender Wiggin is the savant he needs to command the troops in the immanent second war.
So far, so good…at least at first glance. There is some condensing in the first half hour or so, but the film gets the set up okay. Once Ender gets to battle school, the pacing gets all wrong, though. The major portion of the novel, consisting of Ender learning the tactics he will use to defeat the buggers while Graff breaks him down psychologically, becomes a second act in the film, weighted equally with the invasion itself. That’s a mistake, I think. At least it feels like one. I’m glad to not have a lot of montages, but the reality is that the passage of time is a crucial element to this story. Without it, Ender’s gifts seem innate rather than learned, and his climactic decision to use a weapon of mass destruction comes across as though he has been hoodwinked rather than psychologically broken.
I mentioned last month that I thought Gravity was a philosophical movie with a thriller’s sensibilities. On the (plot) surface, Ender’s Game would appear to lend itself to an action movie format. But Card has always seemed to me to be more interested in ideas than plot. Reading the battle scenes, we are acutely aware of tactical decisions and what Ender learns from them. In Hood’s film, the success of Ender’s army comes across more as the result of quick thinking rather than long learning (and training), and any sense of Battle School teaching strategy rather than just aggression goes right out the window when we get to the climactic battle. It is dumbed down in ways that probably make the chaos onscreen easier to follow but does so at the price of drastically altering the motivation and meaning of all that has come before. Plus, it undercuts the first two acts’ reasons for being. There is nothing inspired or skillful in Ender’s execution in the final battle. It is the sort of brute force concentration of power that would make more sense from someone like Boneso Madrid–a sort of first evolution of strategy that the novel’s hero would have had to outgrow many battles ago. (The buggers are supposed to be able to adapt to previous strategies, so Ender is supposed to be strategically creative not just reflexively gifted.)
Those familiar with the novel will know that Card claimed it was originally a back story for what became the sequel–The Speaker for the Dead. The postscript to the war is here, but in it is where so much of the abridgment really starts to wear on the film. What should be a profound and moving encounter is presented a little bit more like a twist, making the transformation of Ender’s attitude towards war to feel forced and his subsequent actions adrift from any motivational impulses that have been gradually growing in him in the longer narrative.
In spite of these reservations, there are three performances that keep the film from sinking. Ford gives Graff an intelligence and decency that the books press a little too hard to convey. It’s just part of the Harrison Ford persona, so the film doesn’t have to do much beyond let him say his lines. Steinfeld gives Petra just the right amount of openness, of personal ease, to make the viewer understand Ender’s attraction to her in its various forms. And Butterfield is really superb. Hood’s visual style and script doesn’t do his actor’s any favors. I would have liked far fewer close ups of Ender in order to convey the emotional distance between him and the world as he assumes command. The second of two instances where Ender must call upon a killer survival instinct is–quite bafflingly–presented as more accident than intent. But Butterfield appears to get that intelligence is more about internal quietness than rapid speech. A lesser actor might have played Ender as too frayed, too volatile. If anything, Butterfield goes a tick too far in the other direction. At times it is hard to tell if Ender is supposed to be calculating (yes) or cautious (no).
The emotion of Ender’s Game (the novel) lies in fragile, stolen moments that leaven a life of pain and confusion. A preciously bought afternoon on the lake with a beloved sibling. A furtive, forbidden whisper of friendship from an unexpected ally. The balm to loneliness in finally finding a teacher who is one’s superior. These scenes are all in the film, but the proportions are off. We are told what they signify but we don’t feel them as joyous reliefs because the film never has the novel’s courage to actually oppress. The shell shock of near annihilation is mentioned but glossed over. The horror of genocide is invoked as a motivation to drive the plot forward, but it doesn’t traumatize the characters (and hence, us) near enough. We see the characters pay the price for the decisions they make, but we never really see the cost, the toll it takes on them. Absent a fuller exploration of the desperation prompting war and the horrors experienced in it, the small moments of life and love don’t really stand out. There needs to be more darkness here for us to truly see and appreciate how the flicker of light that is Ender’s resilient soul is the true miracle that makes the world worth saving.