‘Ender’s Game’: Call It Blunder’s Game (Review)

As I watched Ender’s Game, I could very easily see the weavings of a master craftsman of storytelling that came from the book. It’s clear that author Orson Scott Card didn’t just intend for his book to be an every-nerd fantasy about using coordination skill in the command chair to win a riveting chess match against invading aliens. He intended it to be a coming of age story with commentary about the state and future of war and politics.

Now for the uncomfortable disclaimer. I never read the book. But I don’t need to in order to tell you that Ender’s Game is a bad movie.

My chief worry going into the film was that it was just going to be another John Carter – a would-be interesting film based on a book of latchkey importance to the genre of science fiction that failed because it was too wrapped up in its own inner workings and forgot how to breathe. After all, one look at the trailer for Ender’s Game and you can see ID4, Starship Troopers, StarCraft, Halo, Star Trek, and more.

It turns out that the problem was something different. Everything in Ender’s Game is rushed and rendered utterly perfunctory, especially the ending. The big budgeted work that went into the green screen looked good, the acting was mostly serviceable, and the score was fitting (when it wasn’t rehashing Zimmer’s Nolan Batman), but the film is completely lacking in heart and none of its goodies are enough to save it.

The opening of the film is about as detailed as a bumper sticker as far as encapsulating the premise for our story. It’s that 100% CGI trailer footage played out for about ten seconds. The premise: aliens invade, Earth beats ’em back when one plane crashed into the core of one of their bigger vessels. And we’ve been preparing for their return ever since. We find the smartest and most capable of brainiacs in our limited selection of children under the two-child policy (this is part of the political drama that clearly the film just counted on the book to fill in the blanks for) to train for fleet command.

Ender is the taboo third child in a family where his two older children failed the program. But he’s smarter and better than both of them so of course he succeeds in every test and everyone hates him for being the smart one. He has a terrible relationship with his older psychotic brother, Peter who beats him up because Ender is smarter than him and succeeded where Peter failed. And he has an extremely close relationship with his sister, Valentine because…she’s not Peter. There’s the first problem, given that she is Ender’s connection with the real world outside his strategy games, but in the film has nothing to do except be there for him in that one obligatory scene on the boat halfway through.

Ender’s Game definitely assumes I read the book (or at least it sincerely hopes I did). I didn’t, but I’m going to assume all of you guys did, so I’m going to spoil the crap out of this movie. If you didn’t read it and don’t want to know any more, skip to the last couple paragraphs and score. Then go to the movies and see 12 Years A Slave. Okay?

As I’m led to understand from the book, Ender has a deep seated love for his family and human life that his introversion and self-centered conduct often prevent him from expressing, but don’t look to the movie to paint you this picture. It’s completely glossed over in favor of what he needs to be in the moment.

When we first meet Ender, he outmaneuvers an opponent in a videogame and then beats him up when he is ambushed later. When asked about it, he explains that he won the game, and by beating the man further, he made his victory permanent. It’s that prevention attitude that endears him to Colonel Graff, played by Harrison Ford. He’s playing the exact same character he played in 42 except not quite as cool. I take it he’s supposed to represent the recklessness of humanity and the apathy it has for its own species, let alone that of others – making him an extreme version of young Ender himself. Ford’s fine, but yet again, his character is one we simply don’t see enough of and once again the movie doesn’t do what it really needs to do with him. He’s just Ender’s much less compelling Gandalf – a voucher for this little underdog who can’t really seem to rationalize why he believes so fervently in his little prodigy but we’re supposed to go along with it because we know that’s the story. And while Ender does plenty to indicate that Graff’s faith is well-placed, Graff doesn’t seem to have very much of a personality, just an agenda.

The film barely gets into Ender’s combat training, briefly noting the antics of the drill sergeant and Ender’s rebellion and with one classroom scene that might have been interesting if it wasn’t sidelined by its own lame attempts at humor. There’s a lot borrowed from Captain America: The First Avenger but no visual storytelling that gives us a greater look at the kind of technology and war environment these kids are learning about, which would have been great for universe building. It’s ridiculously inconsistent too. One day his drill sergeant is beating them with the message that they’re a team. Another day he puts them all in a line and tells that each and every one of them is the enemy and competition to each other. And there was about five minutes of screen time between those two moments. Ender just goes through it for what seems like barely a month and then gets promoted to the next class, a spontaneous bump that concludes the absurdly paced first act.

I’m not exactly sure how the full curriculum for these students is supposed to work, or even what the military is looking for. The book probably made sense of it, but the movie sure didn’t. Halfway through school, his drill sergeant starts saluting him, but his drill sergeant is still guiding him. And if you had to be strategically, tactically, mentally, and emotionally brilliant before entering into the program to begin with, what’s with all the physical boot camp and zero gravity stuff? The film shows Ender preparing for this competition by getting hand/hand combat and marksmanship training during R&R with his classmate Petra – the one girl in the squad who takes an interest him without any indication as to why, other than because the book probably did it. But if Ender’s learning key skills he’s going to need to master for field operations in his free time, then what exactly now is he learning about in class? Clearly nothing that’s going to be of any use to him. He’s not supposed to fight on the front lines, but command from the rear.

I’m being a little cheeky. Obviously Ender needs lessons on how the basic grunts of the military work and he needs to be able to make shrewd maneuvers with chess pieces before he’s ready for StarCraft II. And he needs to build his team. But the film really doesn’t convince that he’s exactly doing that even though it’s spending over a third of its screentime pretending to show us that he is. His teammates’ “specialties” are only told to us later on; we don’t see them train and adopt certain expertise that would become useful for a cohesive unit. In the film, they’re just less capable versions of Ender himself, which makes me wonder if Director Gavin Hood just might have been missing the point.

Meanwhile Ender’s playing a mind game that has been unlocked for him by the military because…you know what? I’m not even going to get into that. It was explained to me by a friend who read the book and would take me way too long to reiterate here without sounding like a purist. Just hold that thought for when I talk about the ending.

Ender is given command of his own new team of half the kids from the first class. Some time is ostensibly passed, but the film makes no mention of it because it’s in such a hurry to get to the big competition where Ender’s green-as-grass team will be facing off against not one, but TWO of the top ranked teams in the Academy, ganged up against him. No surprise, Ender wins and then gets ambushed by that bully, this time in the showers. Ender nearly kills him, but this time he thinks he’s taken it too far when everyone wants to tell him that he did nothing wrong. So he quits and goes back to Earth so that he can later be convinced to come back. Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.

Except we’re not. For those who don’t know the big money quote attached to the book, it goes like this.

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.”

This quote is displayed right at the start of the movie. But it isn’t contextualized in any meaningful way. It’s just re-quoted during the conversation Ender has with Valentine on the boat. It’s in the scene because the scriptwriters knew that it happened in the book but it’s utterly empty. Show me what it really means for Ender when he says that. Make me feel the depths of the quote through Ender’s actions and use it to give light into how he truly feels. There just isn’t any of it here. I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as gratuitous dialogue (aside from profanity), but this is about as close to the definition as I can think.

The rest of the movie has its fun bits here and there, I suppose. Ender comes into what the greater war picture looks like and the simulations he and his team go through are more and more intense until the big twist that his final exam was actually real and when he defeated the enemy by sacrificing half his forces and destroying the alien planet in the game, he actually did it in real life. It’s supposed to crush him, because I guess by this point the movie expects that he’s learned a lesson about how winning isn’t everything and just because they “won,” as Graff is so eager to remind him of, doesn’t mean they haven’t just done a terrible thing to an entire species. But there’s very little to indicate that he’s come to such a conclusion logically within the scope of his experiences and thought processes as a character.

That brings us to the ending, which is unquestionably the worst part of the film. Earlier I mentioned the mindgame Ender was playing. He ventures outside and finds himself in the exact same scenario the game left him in last time. In a cave, he meets the queen and finds an egg with a new queen. Though now an admiral for the entire fleet, Ender, feeling guilty over what he’s done, leaves everyone and takes the egg by himself to find it a new home on a new planet.

Seriously, that’s the ending. Guess you should probably go and bury your tears in the pages of the book.

I might have been upset at this, but in reality, I was just confused, until my friend who read the book explained to me what the film forgot about. As it turns out, the aliens initial reasons for invading Earth was a preconception of human beings as being non-sentient and they regretted that mistake, which was why they never attacked again. That was never even hinted at in the film – only the book. And in the book, Valentine went with him, which makes a little more sense from the outset but probably a lot more sense given the full scope that the film just doesn’t have.

Allow me to impart a word to the wise.

When you’re making a movie that adapts from a book, don’t just copy-paste as much as you can from the book and presume that’s enough. You’ve got to get at the heart of it and make us feel the conflict in a way reminiscent of how we felt it in the book, perhaps in a different way than what we were used to. If that means you have to take some things out, change some details around, or imagine the quirks of a character a little differently in order to make the movie better, you’re better off doing that, instead of sticking to the fine print. Forest from the trees, I suppose, if you want another analogy. The only reason I want to read the book is because I can tell that somewhere behind the veil is a brilliant story that actually makes sense and has something interesting to say. But the movie itself is a shallow tribute to that story, and a spectacularly broken one at that. Capturing the spirit of a good book while taking liberties with the details will ALWAYS make for a better film that does the source material justice than a movie that isn’t anything except a glossy cinematic audiobook with acting.

What I find ironic about this is that I’ve spent this whole review talking about what doesn’t make sense or hold together in this film that the book probably does a better job at explaining and how the film should have drawn more from the book, but my conclusion is that the movie needed its framework to be less like the book. Ender Wiggin is not a character I dislike. I just haven’t been shown or told what exactly he wants and the movie didn’t take the time and effort it needed to iron out the scope of the conflict. The most important basics of storytelling have been thrown out with little stylistically to compensate for it. We’re left with something that despite its moments, still amounts to a bad film.

Ender’s Game is a film I really wish I could have been praising as another pleasant surprise in a year that has been full of pleasant surprises but sadly it joins the ranks of movies that I just can’t give the V stamp of approval to. And as a fan of both sci-fi and of the conceptualizations of humanity beating back an alien invasion in this very movie, that’s just dispiriting.

The Good: The acting, effects, and soundtrack.
The Bad: The rushed pacing, the lack of an explanation for…well everything that made the whole movie just not make very much sense.
The Ugly: The perfunctory nature of the character interplay and the missed opportunities to actually capture the spirit of the book.

Overall: 5.2/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • ruth

    I had no interest in seeing this one, and your review confirmed my dread.

  • Rodney

    Sounds like another Eragon to me.
    In their rush to get these popular books onto the big screen and cash-in, studios alienate their audience with mishandled scripting that removes a lot about what made the book great. (or in the case of 50 Shades Of Grey, sexy….. still amazes me they’re making it into a film)
    Writers and studios need to only look at Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings to see how to successfully translate a book into a film. As you mentioned, Vivek, I hate to have to have read the book in order to get everything in the film (much like the Hunger Games films, I’m afraid), so I guess I’ll probably wait to snag Ender’s Game on cheap-Blu down the track.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Glad I saved you some money. Now go spend it on “12 Years A Slave!” 🙂

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    It’s not quite as bad as “Eragon.” The acting in this film was at least passable and it’s got great visuals. Just a whole ‘lotta nothin’ else.

  • Sounds more like SuckerPunch then. Terrific visuals and an average story.

  • Chris

    I thought this was pretty poor. I just thought they tried to shove far too much into too short a film. The climax just felt so rushed and the ending was just bizarre. Nice write up though mate.