"The first 45 minutes or so are quite spectacularly executed," says io9's Lauren Davis but, ultimately, the new us-vs-them space war movie Ender's Game is "not heart-breaking" and rushes the viewer to "its moral about compassion in times of war."
If you've always dreamed of seeing the Battle Room on the big screen or want to see an actor who perfectly embodies Ender Wiggin's strategic brilliance, then the film adaptation of Ender's Game has a lot to offer. But in its haste to hurry us to its moral about compassion in times of war, the film glosses over the war games and development of its child characters that made the book so compelling.
In many spots, Ender's Game is a rather well-made movie, one that performs some minor updates on Orson Scott Card's novel — you won't hear terms like "buttwatcher" and one moment dates this as a distinctly post-9/11 film — while remaining true to its characters and its world. Fans will have no trouble recognizing this as the tale of Ender Wiggin, the brilliant boy brought to Battle School in the hopes that he will prove the greatest military mind humanity has ever seen, our last hope against the alien Formics (no longer the "Buggers") who attacked Earth decades earlier.
The designs are not particularly innovative, but the fashions and technologies fit well within the universe, with occasional touches thoughtful futuristic world building. If the film version does little to elevate the original novel, it also does little to harm it. In fact, the first 45 minutes or so are quite spectacularly executed.
This is largely thanks to the brilliant casting, especially of Asa Butterfield as Ender. Ender is no easy character for an actor to inhabit, a young man who is self-confident without being cocky, brilliant but conscious of how his shows of brilliance affect others, lonely but empathetic. But you can practically see the gears turning in Butterfield's head as Ender comes up with his next move, and his careful attempts to win over his fellow cadets feel premeditated but never obnoxious. He is cautious but not robotic, with bouts of genuine emotion breaking through. Similarly, Hailee Steinfeld's Petra is tough and self-assured, but is first and foremost a team player. The Valentine and Peter arc has been cut, but Abigail Breslin is still lovely as Valentine. And Aramis Knight makes a fine Bean, although his character is sadly underused.
In fact, all of Battle School seems a bit incidental, an opportunity to present Ender's prowess, but not his interior life. Spending time in Ender's head as he calculates his next social or battle move is fascinating, but watching him isn't nearly as interesting.
At a time when drones fight our battles and our competence porn is dominated by men like Walter White and Don Draper, Ender Wiggin, with his combination of competence and compassion, feels both relevant and a fresh face of empathy. And there's value in that. But we only get the Wikipedia plot summary of Battle School in the film, which doesn't even bother to explain the rules of the war games that Ender and his fellow cadets play. If the fictional adults in Ender's Game are anxious to promote Ender to Command school, director Gavin Hood is even more impatient. It's not enough that Ender Wiggin has his childhood snatched from him; the film truncates his development as a commander and his subordinates' growth as an army.
The novel brought us inside a culture of highly intelligent children raised for warfare: their sometimes violent rivalries, their fierce loyalties, the ways in which they harm and defend one another, raise each up and tear each other down. But in giving us just the broad strokes of Battle School, the Ender's Game film portrays the children as reactive, rather than participants in a complex social structure. Consequently, the far more compelling narrative is that of the adults, Harrison Ford's Colonial Graff and Viola Davis' Major Gwen Anderson, who are the ones pulling the strings and dealing with earnest questions of morality. But this isn't a film about Anderson and Graff, and it's not about their relationship with Ender. The focus is still on Ender, but where the film could have a richer character study, it is instead a series of events in the life of Ender Wiggin.
So, while the final act does show off some rather excellently rendered CG space battles, it doesn't connect to what came before except in a few superficial instances. And the film's ultimate revelation, which should be heartbreaking, doesn't have quite the right emotional weight, despite Butterfield's tearful performance.
It's clear that Hood was eager to deliver us to Command School, to Ender's great trial — but at the expense of much of the story's development and of getting to know our young cadets a bit better. Ender's Game is ultimately filled with nicely constructed pieces, from its opening sequences to its haunted denouement, but they don't add up to a movie that sufficiently echoes the excitement or emotional depth of the source material.