Ender’s Game

October 30, 2013


The long-awaited adaptation of the much beloved sci-fi novel Ender’s Game by the much reviled author Orson Scott Card has finally arrived, and though it strikes me as odd that anyone would be particularly interested in seeing this book brought to the screen (maybe a mini-series on TV, perhaps, but as a film, it never made much sense) it has been.  Years of development hell for the various attempts to do so have led us to an era of Young Adult adaptation mania, spurred on by the monstrous successes of Harry Potter and Twilight and, as a result, The Hunger Games.  As a result, we have a bland franchise hopeful written and directed by Gavin Hood.  These sorts of things don’t really rely on a strong authorial identity behind the camera – arguably, they’re antithetical to the business purposes of the pursuit – and so the adaptation runs straight down the middle all the way through, and unsurprisingly leaves us with a quick-paced, nuance-less YA film that mostly serves to highlight why it shouldn’t have been adapted in the first place.

The broad strokes of the plot are fairly simple.  Some 50 years previous, a race of alien bugs known as Formics attacked earth, killing millions, and were eventually repulsed by the global military.  The world is in a continuous state of mobilization, it seems, and it’s been determined that children are the best suited to command the fleets.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a preternaturally gifted tactician who struggles with anger issues as well as compassion for the enemy, and is shepherded through the various training schools by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who believes he can save the world from the Formics once and for all.

If you can tell from that brief synopsis, a lot of the story takes place in training schools (the bulk of which is spent in Battle School, where Ender learns to become a leader among his misfit friends).  It’s hardly the stuff of a big screen sci-fi extravaganza, though if Harry Potter taught us anything it’s that there’s a lot of room for fantasy action at a school.  Still, those films always had a central mystery to hang on the growing pains of adolescence.  Ender’s Game narrative trajectory feels pre-determined since the whole exercise is to get the hero from point A to point B to point C, so the drama should rely totally on the character.  This is where the unfortunate financial realities come into play.  The film would probably be at its best if it were approached as a straight-up character study, which would entail it being probably quieter and more impressionistic and thus hurting possible box office attraction.  Instead we half of a film where Ender learns to catch the metaphorical snitch to prove himself as a leader, even though he already seems to know he’s the smartest person in any room from the very beginning.  The supporting characters are drawn broadly and are largely one-note, and their conversion to his friend and supporter is told rather than shown (which is a problem this film has throughout).  There’s a ramped up pseudo-romance with Petra (Hailee Steinfield), and some lame comic relief provided by goofball fellow trainess (launchees, as they’re called) as well as the gruff drill sergeant, all of which is rather silly and unconvincing.  The meat should be Ender’s dealing with his anger issues and his problems with authority, but only on a few occasions are either developed in any meaningful way.  Butterfield gets saddled with a tough character – his quiet intelligent seriousness means that any scenes of levity feel awkward and forced – and he doesn’t have the chops (or the script) to pull off anything more convincing than the adolescent male fantasy of the bullied nerd proving his dominance again and again.

All of this leads the odd climax at the command school, where we’re essentially left to watch Ender prove himself through a series of simulations.  This is tantamount to watching someone play a video game as far as the stakes go, and as far as Ender’s ability, only the final battle actually shows anything approaching the tactical skill we’ve been told about for so long.  This would be tricky for anyone to convey on screen, and though I won’t spoil the big twist (it’s a good one, morally and ethically), it’s also almost inherently uncinematic, especially when the story is being told the way it is here.

It’s tempting to give a pass considering the story and the financial issues at place.  After all, this is probably the best that could be done under the circumstances if you look at it from a pretty fair angle.  Still, there’s another adaptation of a modern sci-fi classic that involves a militarized earth going up against a race of alien bugs that’s impossible to forget when watching Ender’s Game, and that is Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 Starship Troopers.  Troopers begins with the characters in high school, there’s an attack, they go to boot camp, then off to training, then there are a number of action set pieces that lead to discovering the central mystery of how the bugs operate.  It has all the story beats of Ender’s Game and more, and it manages to be far more effective as a narrative with a barely ten minute longer running time.  It’s bright, plastic look is not just visual hedging, but reflects the aesthetic of the entire venture, down to the casting of its plastic pretty people leads.  There is, in short, a reason for the choices made there other than money and franchise protection.  It manages to cover similar themes of militarization and individuality but much better and much richer.  It’s world-building is far more effective and it does so by giving side characters stray lines that speak volumes.  It’s got a fiercely satirical edge that never lets up, even down to the last frames, and it does it all while still being exciting, funny, and all-around enjoyable.  It’s a different property with a different audience for sure, but it’s also important to remember that in 1997, a big budget effects-heavy sci-fi extravaganza being rated R was a pretty shocking thing.

It is, ultimately unfair to compare one movie to another (just as it is to compare the book to the movie version), but it’s instructive in the power of a singular authorial intent.  Ender’s Game has fine special effects, although they’re nothing to write home about.  It’s visual palette is blandly plastic, presumably because it means that the hopeful sequels can easily directed by someone else with shaking up the pattern too much.  It works very hard to stay true to the book so as not to annoy the fanbase too much, whilst also not going on any limbs in case of scaring away a mass audience.  It tries to please everybody and, as a result, pleases no one.


One Response to “Ender’s Game”

  1. Greg Says:

    Damn you Matt, I was looking forward to this movie too.

    Although you’re spot on with the “probably better as a mini-series than movie” idea.

    Part of what was so intriguing was the fact that I could never envision the book as a movie (much too complicated and all over the shop). Seems like that’s the verdict here…

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