Ender’s Game retains the novel’s outline, but loses the heart of Orson Scott Card’s masterpiece.
Mainly because the picture loses the book’s characters. In Writer/Director Gavin Hood’s adaptation, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) is a hardened military commander to whom children are naught but tools, instead of a guilt ridden mentor who stifles his own concern to pursue what he thinks is the greatest good. Valentine (Abigail Breslin), Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy) and Bean (Aramis Knight) might as well not exist. Which says nothing about Shen, and all of the emotional weight between he and Ender, because Shen is, in fact, excised from the film.
More troublingly, Hood loses Ender’s essence. Hood’s screenplay repeatedly tells us about the titular character’s empathy, but it never really shows it to us. Nor does the movie show Ender’s compassion or guilt. Instead, Hood focuses on Ender’s military efficiency, tactical brilliance, ruthlessness, competitiveness, and, yes, fear, all of which needs be present, of course, but isn’t enough. Ender’s outrage at the military complex’s duplicity and trickery feels less like natural maturation and more like sudden shift in character definition. The Andrew Wiggin of Gavin Hood’s film should be proud of his accomplishments, not repulsed by them.
So it is I say without reservation: this movie is not half as good as the book.
This, however, is not an essay contrasting the movie and novel. It is a film review. So let’s focus strictly on the motion picture.
Even as a stand alone product, Ender’s Game is flawed. By telling not showing us Ender’s empathy, and by writing one dimensional characters, Hood produces a near emotionless, plot-based anti-war, anti-bullying narrative. He pushes no new ground and fuels only the most surface level thought processes.
Yet, Ender’s Game is wildly entertaining, largely thanks to a fantastic cast. Asa Butterfield is terrific as Ender, and Harrison Ford plays Graff’s calculating coldness beautifully. Even Breslin, in limited screen time, is excellent. But the real scene-stealer is Moises Arias as Bonzo Madrid, Ender’s ineffectual commander. Arias is captivating as a terrible leader, so good, in fact, that the movie could have worked just as well if it had been from his point of view.
The effects are also amazing. The zero-g war game is beautifully realized, as is the computerized mind-game.
Ender’s Game features terrific pacing, always keeping the action moving, always giving us clever visuals on which to chew and always fueling a sense of frenetic urgency.
Moreover, Hood’s decision to start with older characters is wise. A six-year-old Ender barely works in the novel. He would have failed miserably on the screen.
But let’s return to my initial point, just to highlight its import. Save Ender, each of these characters has one-dimension, and Ender’s second dimension is communicated through words, not visuals, facts that mean we never care about anyone in this film, at least not because of the movie. We never experience any emotion.
With depthless characters but stunning visuals, Ender’s Game is neither terrible nor terrific. It might be the very definition of average.