We like the Orson Scott Card epic Ender's Game, which borrows the best elements of the books and leaves out the bad press.
You might remember when controversial author Orson Scott Card made anti-homosexuality comments this summer, touching off an ugly press run for a film that had already endured rumors of production issues. As the fairly dull previews emerged, we became increasingly worried that one of our favorite childhood novels would become yet another shelf-to-screen victim, sacrificing story for the teen action angle. Luckily, Ender's Game is much better than that, looking and sounding like a first rate Science Fiction film with a lot on its mind.
Based on Card's sweeping epic, the Earth is much smaller in Director/Writer Gavin Hood's lens, having removed the deep subplots and politics for a compressed story about its titular character. But the beginning is the same: having repelled an alien invasion by the Formics, Earth seeks children to wage war because their minds see complex patterns better than adults. Enter the 12-year old Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), whose existence is a slap in the face to Earth's population controls. His bully brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and loving sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) were cadet washouts, which allowed their parents to try for another child. Ender is innately gifted in strategy and combat, drawing the attention of Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and his Battle School, who refers to Ender as "the one." But even such messianic promise needs molding, and Graff sets out to isolate the boy during training, fostering resentment among other cadets, and engaging Ender in psychological games designed to test his fortitude. Soon, he's worked his way into the zero-gravity Battle Room high above Earth orbit. There, children train to later join the International Fleet; Major Anderson (Viola Davis) worries that Ender is being puhed too hard by the unfeeling and single-minded Graff. Meanwhile, Ender kindles both kindness (from Hailee Steinfeld's Petra) and sociopathic dictators (the squad leader Bonzo, played by Moises Arias), while trying to balance the war going on in his mind. All of this leads to a final training session where both Ender and Petra realize that their roles are much different than they understand.
The cast is exceptional, including the resurrected Ford - who portrays Graff as the tired leader with pitch-perfect precision - and Butterfield who makes a powerful impact on the viewer. Most child actors can't handle the dramatics, leading to tedious performances that reduce the experience. Not here: Butterfield allows his emotions to play a central role, bringing the destructive and conflicted Ender to life. In a time when bullying has entered the national consciousness, his portrayal is more victim-turned-hero than the one depicted in the book. There, he thoroughly destroys his bullies, killing two and seriously injuring another, which I always considered unnecessary. But I can see how others - especially purists - might have wanted to see that layer. Luckily, we don't need it to understand the boy's motives, or the choices he will later be forced to make. Hood doesn't quite dig deep enough with his characters, sacrificing development to speed things up, but keeps the glum world of future Earth consistent, even though it threatens to dull the whole effort. I believe this was the right choice to make, for any sort of uplifting moment at film's end would have undermined the central theme of the story. This is a children's crusade built on the damaged psyches of youth, impossible to repair but absolutely necessary for this kind of war.
Ender's Game brings up a whole host of thought-provoking questions about war, morality, and the gray area that exists between hero and genocidal maniac. Smartly, Hood doesn't spend too much time ranting about them, rather keeping things moving. There are terrific lines in here, such as Graff's "When the war is over, we can debate the morality of what we do," and others that provide important clues to his larger plan for Ender. We emerge from the theater ready for a debate, which is I think the best aspect of cinema. But there are several unrealized moments: Valentine and Peter are reduced to much smaller and shallower roles than in the book, which removes such a rich layer that could have better established any plans for a sequel. Instead of the evil and maniacal Peter and the manipulative Valentine, we get the pure bully and the loving sister. In this case, another 15 minutes might have actually made this movie better. Kingsley's role as the hero Mazer Rackman is comes off as more of a cameo, reduced to a painted man who doesn't offer much Ender any challenge or worship whatsoever. It's the missing element that could have better connected Acts 2 and 3. Some have also criticized whether the big reveal near film's end was effective: I believe it was, although Hood did not entirely sell the sizzle as well as he could. Ender's realization and explosive moment with Graff afterwards are the payoff that I'm glad made it into the film, but it's clear that Hood's writing lacked the needed gravitas.
Ender's Game borrows the best elements from the novel, rounding out the experience with a great cast and a solid (although stripped-down) story. It's the best shelf-to-screen book we've seen in 2013, even with its lack of deep character development. Summit Entertainment is clearly hoping to establish this as a franchise, but it's anyone's guess whether fans of Twilight will be coerced to stand in line for this one. Still, it looks gorgeous and the reveal is still powerful. Go see this on the biggest screen possible, but be prepared for a small human story as well. This film has a lot to say, and that carries it when all the explosions and killing are done. This might not be the film we entirely hoped for, but at least it has the courage to ask the big questions. Ender's Game is rated PG-13 for violence, sci-fi action and thematic material and has a runtime of 114 minutes.
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