Ever since Harry Potter ended, studios have been desperate to find the next big “Teen Thing.” Generally, these movies – Twilight for example – are a profitable gold-mine, coming with an already established fan-base and a host of literary sequels to work with; they make for very easy and very sustainable franchises. Some of the more recent attempts – The Mortal Instruments – have failed dramatically, others – The Hunger Games – have proved to be highly successful, the latter in particular promising the start of intelligent teen fiction; teen fiction which deals with larger thematic concepts with well-drawn and interesting characters.
Ender’s Game attempts to follow The Hunger Games format; a somewhat smarter teen affair based on a well-established source; the difference being that this time, studios looked to the past, and dug out Orson Scott Card’s 80s military sci-fi novel. It’s a complicated and interesting story, the start of a far larger franchise, and something that fans have been waiting for for a long time. The marketing team have dubbed Ender’s Game as ‘Star Wars meets Harry Potter,’ though of course, the movie fails to live up to either; Ender’s is an average affair, a far cry from The Hunger Games and unlikely to the be the next big Teen Thing, but it does have some redeeming features.
The film is set in the future, fifty years after an alien-bug invasion which killed thousands. Fearing a second attack, the military – lead by Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff – have set up a series of specialised schools to find the next pivotal military hero; a commender able to lead Earth against the alien fleet, should it ever strike again. And so steps in Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) a young boy with strong strategic gifts – we follow Ender on his training, as he tries to make sense of the alien war, and prepares to fight against a second strike.
Ender’s Game was a remarkably forward thinking novel, predicting, amongst other things, the rise of video games and the power of blogging. The film is a more streamlined experience, but still allows for more weight than other teen flicks – it takes a serious look at war and its conflicting elements, painting a realistic and almost satirical look into anti-war fear and military hypocrisy which will likely go over the heads of its intended audience. Whilst the marketing has dubbed the movie Star Wars for a new generation, Ender’s Game is far closer in tone and style to Starship Troopers, and works in the same grey areas; the enemy may be more complicated than they appear, and the good guys may be more ambiguous.
The film has something to say about the darker elements of wars – in this case, child soldiers – though seems scared of going all the way with this and there’s a feeling that something has been lost in translation. In the book, Ender is training from six years old, and trains for several years; this timeline is severely reduced in the film (seemingly lasting a few weeks) which takes away from a lot of the child-solider elements. The blogging and political side of the book are completely removed too. The war message – both anti and for, Card seems to argue for both sides – does still work however, and there’s a fantastic final reveal which does pull an emotional impact.
There are some strong moments – director Gavin Hood puts some good action scenes together, in particular the weightless fights in the Battle Room. The set-design and location design too is serviceable – we’re not pushing the boundaries here, and we’re nowhere near the levels of the classics (2001, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner) but the world looks real and feels weighty, with some strong special effects creating sprawling space-stations and spiky, monstrous alien vessels. The final fight sequences are also impressive and very kinetic.
However, this isn’t an engaging movie. There’s a sense thoughout that a lot has been cut, and the world we watch isn’t as developed as it should be; it’s like a lot of the exposition ended up on the cutting room floor and it can be tough to get a grasp on what is really, a fairly straight-forward story. For example, the explanation for child soldiers is only briefly touched upon and not really sufficient. The video game elements don’t work either; the film doesn’t really explain the mechanics and there’s a vagueness to these sequences which doesn’t help.
The sections on Earth drag and throughout, the pacing is terrible. The film is relatively short but feels much longer, partly because the structure from the novel does not translate well; we follow Ender as he progresses through the ranks but the act structure doesn’t fit and we’re cheated out of a climax; the movie constantly feels like its building to something it never reaches, and whilst this would have worked fine in book form, it doesn’t fit as a film. Too much hinges on further instalments too, which means by the end, the movie doesn’t actually answer many of its own questions and can’t really stand on its own terms. It doesn’t help that many of the scenes are repetitive too; the weightless battles are fun but there’s quite a few of them, and once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.
Asa Butterfield is good in the title role, coming across smart and controlling but compassionate too, nicely walking the lines between violent war general and audience pleasing, moral hero. For a young actor, he does anger very well, and the audience do feel like Ender could hold his own, and that others would follow him. Unfortunately, the movie uses glimpses of Ender’s siblings as crucial development (Ender’s brother is a intelligent sociopath and Ender fears becoming him) but doesn’t bother to develop these points significantly; there’s a sense that this was all explained in the novel and so for viewers who haven’t read the source material, Ender’s motivations and fears are vague and need piecing together. It’s badly adapted in this sense. No-one else in the cast has much to do of note – Harrison Ford’s general is fairly one-sided and the actor doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself. Ben Kingsley appears in an insane performance which could have benefited from a bit of restraint. Others, like bully Moisés Arias, are just miscast, whilst the usually strong Abigail Breslin isn’t given enough to do.
Something has to be said about the movie’s controversy too, as it’s come up a fair few times in recent months. Orson Scott Card, the original author, is a homophobe, and not exactly quiet in his views. Fans have turned against him, feeling betrayed by an author that they previously admired, and even Lionsgate have distanced themselves from the writer, releasing a press-statement opposing his misguided views. It’s a topic which has haunted production during interviews and the studio must be kicking themselves everytime Card tweets. Numerous groups have declared a boycott on Ender’s Game, not wanting to support the author. However, whilst there is no denying that Card is a fairly terrible human being, it seems unfair to judge a piece of fiction through the lens of their author. Ideally, though the creator will always put a little of themselves into every piece, the final product should be free to stand alone, especially if the material doesn’t endorse or support the author’s views. Ender’s Game is preoccupied with war, and even if you go into it looking for a negative homophobic subtext, there isn’t one to be found. In that sense, a boycott seems a bit extreme.
However, there’s not too much memorable in this movie, and certainly not enough in it warrant any kind of controversy. It’s a competent, if bland sci-fi movie, a far cry from the films it’s trying to be, and really, the sort of movie which exists for the purpose of wasting a few hours. Sci-fi fans looking for a bit of escapism should check it out, though its unlikely to stick in anyone’s minds come Christmas.