Okay, full disclosure time: I’ve never read Ender’s Game.
Or rather, I tried to in middle school and didn’t very far. I honestly don’t remember why. Maybe at the time I found the writing rather impenetrable – like my experience reading Fellowship of the Ring. Maybe I just didn’t find it very interesting. Regardless, I remained aware that Orson Scott Card’s novel was considered a classic for young adults and the sci-fi genre. And that the film adaptation of it had languished in Development Hell since the novel’s publication in 1985. The whole production had even been slapped with that most ignominious of labels: being ‘unfilmable’. Of course, in a sort of reverse of the point made in THIS review, the question isn’t will they make the movie. Plenty of unfilmable novels have been filmed. The question is how long will it take? And who will make it? And will it be any good?
In this instance, the adaptation was scripted and directed by Gavin Hood, the South African director who gave us Tsotsi, the story of a teenaged street thug forced to care for an abandoned baby that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A win that, no doubt, gave him credibility. Credibility he lost almost immediately when he helmed the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Full disclosure again: At the time I saw X-Men Origins, I thought it was perfectly fine. I also had no idea who Deadpool was and why people were so upset about him. I haven’t seen it since it came out, so maybe things have changed. Or maybe they haven’t.)
While that might make some fans of the book trepidatious, I think I’m probably in the perfect demographic to see the film. Having never read the book, I have nothing to judge it against. And surprisingly, the film’s marketing has not pushed Ender himself, instead focusing on Harrison Ford’s gruff Col. Graff (gee, I wonder what word his last name sounds like?), who espouses many vague allusions to a near-genocidal alien attack on Earth and how that must never happen again and Ender is our only hope and everybody else is like ‘He’s just a kid, don’t you see that he’s not ready?’ (paraphrasing) and he’s all like “You’re never ready. You’re only ready enough.” (Not paraphrasing.) In short, I know nothing.
For those who are like me, the film educates you on the history of its characters and their world in a way that is brisk but also leaden with expository dialogue. In the year 2086, Earth was attacked by an insectoid-like alien race known as the Formics. Decades later, we prepare for an assumed retaliation by training child soldiers. The reason? A child’s brain integrates complex information more easily than that of an adult. …So anyway, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a child prodigy at war. His superiors at the International Fleet have noticed. His brother, Peter, was kicked out for being too sadistic. His sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), was kicked out for being too compassionate. Ender yearns to find a diplomatic solution to conflicts, but when pushed, destroys his enemies so thoroughly that it prevents any future attacks. Graff sees this as a desirable and exploitable element, and ships him off to Battle School, where he will be trained in how to combat his enemy while being kept as socially isolated as possible.
As you can see, rich stuff.
So does the movie live up to it? Well, let me put it this way. Everything is very good. And staid. That applies to the sets, the special effects, the directing, the action, but especially the acting, which is unfortunate because there is a cavalcade of talent attached to this. Asa Butterfield, the young man who also lead such films as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, does an admirable job of showing what’s unspoken, conveying the conflict in Ender’s eyes between his peaceable and his brutal sides. But – and this is not necessarily Butterfield’s fualt – it’s easy to make a character sympatheic but not particularly interesting. The same goes for Harrison Ford, who plays Col. Graff with gruffness his name implies; nothing more, nothing less. Viola Davis plays a compassionate onlooker. As does Abigail Breslin. They’re both really compassionate. Even Hailee Steinfeld, who blew me away holding her own with the likes of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in the remake of True Grit, is disappointingly given little to do here. Her Petra, one of the only girls at Battle School (perhaps the only one) to have spoken dialogue, is someone who takes an immediate liking to Ender and helps him as often as she can. And that’s it.
The only real surprises here, acting-wise, are 1.) Ben Kingsley manages a surprisingly good New Zealand accent, and 2.) the young Moisés Arias’ portrayal of Salamander Army leader Bonzo Madrid. I’ll admit, with his diminutive stature and permanent scowl, I found it funny when he first chews out Butterfield, who quite literally towers over Arias. But it doesn’t take long for you to believe that when he threatens Ender with death if ever disobeys his orders again, he’ll do it.
Interestingly, despite Orson Scott Card being a big fat homophobe, the film is surprisingly progressive in its integration of race and gender. Yes, our protagonist is a white male, and his superior is a white male (though his superior is of color), but the ‘Launchies’ of Battle School are a diverse mix of boys and girls. Ender makes friends with two South Asian kids, Bean (Aramis Knight) and Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy), almost instantaneously. And although Steinfeld’s Petra is a boring character, she’s shown to be as interested, capable, and essential to the team as any of her male counterparts. Maybe I’m just out of touch, but I still feel like it’s kind of rare to see this in films these days, let alone see it implemented without being completely condescending. I don’t know if this progressive attitude is in Card’s novels, but if it is, then it make his intolerance of homosexuals all the more perplexing.
I won’t give away the film’s twist, but to those who’ve read the book, I’ll admit: it got me. It was a real gut punch. This is an intelligent, challenging story, filled with moral quandaries and righteous anger. It’s just a shame that film often doesn’t feel as passionate as its source material.
See it if you wanna see it.