A Losing Game, by Josh Long
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is a novel so well known that you’ve probably heard of it even if you don’t read sci-fi. With the book almost thirty years old, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to have a big-screen adaptation. Bug-like aliens, massive space battles, war games and boot camp training; it’s all ripe fodder for today’s big-budget special effects bonanzas. Gavin Hood’s adaptation of the film is that, but not a lot more. And in watching the film, it’s easier to see some of the reasons the source material wasn’t so easily translated.
Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young boy on earth, is chosen to join the International Fleet’s battle school, a training ground where they’re searching for the next great commander to defeat the alien Formics. The Formics (updated from the “buggers” of Card’s novel) had invaded earth fifty years earlier, resulting in millions of deaths. The International fleet holds this memory over the citizens, and uses it to justify the intense training of young children. Ender is extremely gifted when it comes to strategy and tactics. His inner struggle, however, has him torn between killer instincts (which his teachers want to encourage) and his natural childhood innocence.
After the train wreck that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, audiences may be cautious about writer/director Gavin Hood. While Ender’s Game has its problems, it’s certainly not that kind of nonsensical mess. Story beats flow naturally, effects may be overused, but not ad nauseum. With the pervasive slew of effects-laden films in today’s movies, little stands out as impressive digital FX, and there’s nothing new here. Still, the effects aid and tell the story, so they work. The adaptation also stays as true to the book as the medium allows, so only the nitpickiest of fans will find it an unfaithful reworking. Still, the adaptation poses some problems that result in problems with the film.
One of these is the fact that all of this is taking place with kids. It’s a little hard to accept that there are no adults who can fight the Formics, that is HAS to be kids. There’s a throwaway line about how children can respond more quickly to more information, or something like that, but from there, we’re just supposed to accept it. Not enough time is taken to really explain what’s going on here, and why they need children. Also, the idea should be present that the children are being raised in this early, and all have an accelerated maturity. If we believe in a future where children reach emotional and intellectual maturity much earlier, the premise would be easier to swallow.
This also means that most of the actors are children, and it’s hard to find good child actors. None of them is doing a bad job, but none of the performances really stand out (a possible exception is Moises Arias as a bully commander Ender encounters at battle school). This may not be entirely at the fault of the actors; the film doesn’t give them much time to develop, because it feels like it’s trying to get through all the plot points at breakneck speed. It’s almost too quick for us to follow what’s happening, and certainly too quickly for us to get a handle on how much time has passed. Does Ender become the best kid at battle school within months or days? It’s impossible to say. Since the book’s story unfolds over five to seven years, the changes are more obvious and more believable. In the film, the time line is muddy at best.
The film does do a good job of showing that Ender recognizes that he’s being used as a pawn by the adults in his life. This lends some depth to his character, and a conflict that is consistent, not reliant on whether he is winning or losing the battles that arise. The two leading adults in the battle school (played by Harrison Ford and Viola Davis) fulfill mother and father roles, in a rather clunky metaphor. But the tension between Ender and Hyrum Graff (Ford) comes to represent the conflict within Ender; to destroy completely in order to prevent future wars, or to use his strategic brilliance to find another way. The end of the story brings this conflict to a head, but the resolution is somewhat confusing. Audiences may walk away wondering what exactly was going on at the end. It’s meant to tie up those inner conflicts, but again it’s compacted to fit into the smallest possible amount of time, and is over before we have time to process.
The effects, excitement, and young cast may make it a perfect film for young boys. It plays out not unlike a video game, with plenty of cool battle sequences and a main character easily relatable for that demographic. More mature viewers are less likely to forgive the pacing and timeline issues, and the lack of depth to most characters. Ender’s Game is certainly a step forward from Wolverine, but still misses elements that might make it really stand out.