Ender’s Game

Ender's GameSynopsis: As fears of an alien invasion grow, Earth’s International Fleet recruits an unlikely leader – a young and brilliant boy – to command its forces and fight for the future of the human race. Based on the worldwide bestseller and featuring an all-star cast, Ender’s Game bursts with epic adventure and stunning visual effects.

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Ender’s Game 8.0

eyelights: the cast. the performances. the adaptation. the visual splendour of the piece.
eyesores: the lost emotional resonance of the original material.

“The way we win matters.”

Along with ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires’, Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ is one of my all-time favourite books. Unlike most novels, I’ve read it a few times, as well as its sequels and parallel books. Although the series becomes less interesting to me as it goes on, I remain captivated by the original book, which was published in 1985, based on a short story that Card wrote in 1977.

What captivates me about the book is not the setting, which is the war between humanity and the Formics, but its psychological exploration of the protagonist, Andrew Wiggins; it goes deep into his psyche and explores his strategic genius. In so doing, we can’t help but be impressed with his abilities but also empathize with him as the pressures on him mount to a near-breaking point.

Andrew, or Ender, feels very real.

A dozen years ago, I heard that a movie based on ‘Ender’s Game’ was being worked on. Card himself was writing the script and he made a draft available online for us to read. I wasn’t so sure about the direction he’d taken and wondered if he wasn’t over-analyzing the material and losing his way in the process. I felt that the book was perfect and should be transferred to screen verbatim.

I kept reading his novels, and then I started to read his political musings, which he published regularly. This was in the early days of the second war in Iraq, and he was a supporter of all things Dubya. I was dumfounded. The man who wrote the original Ender series was an empathetic person who humanized even the most alien creatures. He couldn’t possibly be a supporter of such a twisted regime.

The more I read his political stuff, the more I began to wonder about Card. He rabidly defended the Republicans even in the face of the most grievous atrocities. His position on gay marriage wasn’t just oppositional, it was threatening. How could this be the same person who made Ender a Speaker for the Dead, someone so in tune with others that he could speak the truth of their lives?

Then it occurred to me that perhaps Card was playing a game in much the same way that Peter and Valentine Wiggins played a game with their own online posts, taking adversarial positions precisely to shape things in ways that would produce political results, as opposed to speaking their real views. At least the Wiggins used pseudonyms; it didn’t make sense that he would use his own name.

Because, despite the thought that Card might be playing a role, his unpalatable political positions have completely stained my impression of him. I love his books, but no longer the mind behind them. And this even though at least I actually considered the possibility that he was faking it. Most people haven’t, as evidenced by the comments that I read online; his detractors seem to be legion.

By the time the movie to ‘Ender’s Game’ was finally announced, after years mired in production Hell, ever-changing leads and directors, I couldn’t have cared less. I held out little hope for the project, something that wasn’t helped by the fact that Gavin Hood (who directed the execrable ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘) was hired to direct. After all this time, it had come down to this?

I remained curious enough to read reviews, however. They were middling, with most people saying that it was a cold film. The picture didn’t do that well, either, only recouping its budget after international grosses were factored in. This all seemed to confirm my suspicions, and pretty much excused me for staying at home; I was clearly not missing out on anything of any significance.

When the picture was released on blu-ray, however, I started to read positive comments about it from people who’d seen it. They invariably knocked Card’s politics, but defended ‘Ender’s Game’. And when one of my best friends told me that he had enjoyed it and thought I should give it a look, I started to reconsider it. So, when a local store had the blu-ray for sale, I bought it.

I got my money’s worth. And more. In fact, surprisingly, I really liked ‘Ender’s Game’.

It’s hard for me to be objective about ‘Ender’s Game’, given my love of the original book and my distaste for all that revolved around the making of the picture. But I sat there transfixed, jotting down very few notes because there was really very little for me to pick apart; it was constructed far more effectively than I could ever have imagined when I first read the novel.

In fact, the movie version expressed the book’s events far better than my mind’s eye ever could. I can finally see the Battle School, the Battle Room, the space combats, everything. I don’t blame Card at all for my inability to envision what he’s written; I frequently have a difficult time creating mental images without something to refer to. This applies in many areas of my life.

In any event, ‘Ender’s Game’ was near perfect. It just flew by and I was captivated from start to finish, something that most pictures are unable to do – especially Hollywood action films, which frequently become redundant with their repetitiveness. Not so with ‘Ender’s Game’. Actually, if I were to criticize anything, it’s that it cut out too much of the book’s recurring elements, speeding along.

The problem with this is that we have no sense of time. Although 2/3 of the way in, Ender tells his sister that he’s been at it for months, there is no way for us to know this; everything seems to take place in the span of moments. I’ll grant you that watching incessantly practice runs would be tedious in some areas, but at least they would have given us some perspective on Ender’s trials.

Here, we don’t see just how good a commander he is; we don’t see him rise due to his genius. Instead, we are told he’s a genius while he is moved up by Colonel Graff at a rate that seems irresponsible. Had we spent more time in the Battle Room with Ender, had we seen the growing number of battles his team won and increasing odds put against him, we’d believe how terrific he actually was.

Not so here.

Another issue with the picture is that we don’t explore the game as much as Card does in the book. While that might have been tedious because it would have amounted to watching someone else play a video game, it was crucial to understand that Ender not only can think outside conventional rules, but that he was connected with a force outside himself, that the game actually interacted with him.

This would have made the ending far more poignant as we would have felt the emotional bond that Ender had with the Formics, as opposed to merely being told he had one. While it may have been essential to cut the game segments for time considerations, it hobbled the emotional impact of Ender’s realization at the very end, and we have no understanding of why he makes the choices that he makes.

Similarly, his relationships aren’t really explored in any great depth. We are given hints of Ender’s close relationship to Valentine and his terror of Peter, but barely. And his other closest relationship is not with Bean, but with Petra, who becomes a pseudo love interest here (not in actuality, but the way they look at each other suggests otherwise), playing more of a part than she did in the novel.

Similarly, the parts of Colonel Graff and Major Anderson were given more weight in the picture. Although they are recurring characters in the book, a majority of our time is spent with Ender, while these characters pop up from time to time to direct the action. In the movie, since we spend less time with Ender, Graff and Anderson spend a larger amount of time on screen than they should.

Harrison Ford plays Graff, and I wasn’t entirely happy with his interpretation. While he appeared tough in some instances, Ford also has that soft side which made him so appealing to the masses; that side weakens Graff somewhat, making him seem less callous and more feeling. Ford was still convincing, however, and he had a remarkable moment at the end when he growls at a defiant Ender.

Asa Butterfield was brilliant as Ender. I didn’t quite like him at first because he seemed wimpy, nervous, not at all the confident, strategic genius I’d expected. However, as the character developed, so did Butterfield’s performance. I later realized that he had purposely played him that way at the onset to show his transition. By the end, his Ender was everything you could hope for.

In fact, I would have to say that Butterfield’s performance is one of the best ones I’ve seen coming from a teenaged actor in recent memory. That he was able to transition the character as well as he did given that the material sped him along so quickly is rather astonishing, actually. This is a character who should have grown over a longer stretch of time, and yet Butterfield pulled it off.

‘Ender’s Game’ could have benefited from an additional 30 minutes, I think. Granted, it would likely have slowed the film down somewhat and this is likely what the filmmakers were trying to avoid; an introspective lead and repetitive action doesn’t make for very exciting cinema. But I wish that there had been two cuts of the picture, much like they did with the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films.

Let’s face it: ultimately, the story of Andrew Wiggins is pretty much as epic as Frodo’s, and it deserves some fleshing out. To me, ‘Ender’s Game’ is the equivalent of ‘Star Wars’: originally conceived as a one-off and with a limited scope, but later expanded well beyond its creator’s initial expectations. If only there had been an extended edition of ‘Ender’s Game’ for fans of the novel.

Because, although it holds up as a movie, the emotional resonance of what happens to Ender and of his actions are lost due to the hurried way in which the material is adapted. By not allowing us into his thoughts (as in the book), we lose his humanity, his struggle and his genius. Here, what he achieves doesn’t seem so difficult, the impact is lessened tenfold, and his final decision seems random.

Still, ‘Ender’s Game’ remains a gripping motion picture. Perhaps less so than the book, but it remains true to it and does it justice, all things considered. It’s also a feast for the senses; it must have been stunning on the big screen (get it on blu-ray and watch it on a proper system if you can!). Backed by some solid performances, it’s nearly as good as we could have hoped for. Nearly.

But that’s plenty enough for me. Despite my initial reservations, I’m a fan.

Date of viewing: May 15, 2015

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