<Minor spoilers; nothing major>
Ender’s Game is one of the classic essential military science fiction novels of the last fifty years. On the surface, it was a pretty simple setup with a couple interesting twists: Alien invasion nearly destroys the Earth and humanity fights back by cultivating children to be its Fleet Commanders (kids are thought to be more adaptable). It follows a somewhat predictable but enjoyable arc and ends on an intriguing note; the author Orson Scott Card indicated that the whole purpose of ‘Ender’s Game’ was as a prequel to his ‘Speaker of the Dead’ trilogy (a much more philosophical and deliberate series of books). Despite all of this, Ender’s Game remains popular because it really grabs you approximately five minutes after you finish it. You realize that the story is actually a pretty grim tale of manipulation, hypocrisy, and amorality. The central question of the book really hits you after it is done: Is turning children into monsters in order to save humanity acceptable? Is there such a thing as going too far when trying to save the human race? Ender’s Game (and the subsequent ‘Speaker of the Dead’ series) doesn’t beat you over the head like other Sci-Fi classics (I am looking at you Robert Heinlein – no hate, I love you but your books are not subtle) and manages to work its way under the skin.
The film version misses the mark.
It is not due to bad acting by the lead. Asa Butterfield is the best part of the movie. He is a bit taller than I envisioned but he has the same rail thin, sharp features and pale complexion that I envisioned. Asa plays Ender Wiggin as a kid who is preternaturally aware and emotionally closed; he genuinely loves his sister in a way that is marginally creepy but true to the character - but he you get the sense that is ‘faking’ it with everyone else. Everything is a calculation with this kid. Don’t misinterpret his characterization as robotic; it is not. This kid is supremely controlled, not an automaton and I think Asa really nails it. Harrison Ford plays the part of the soulless military man who has lost his moral compass. He has a very effective speech late in the film that communicates just how far off azimuth this guy has gone - and making you believe that he may be right. The special effects are really good and the battle sequences are effective plus have the added bonus of not being so frenetic that you cannot keep track of what is happening – a common problem with modern action sequences.
What holds me back is that the movie glosses over the central question and tries to do too much. The ‘love’ interest with fellow squad member Petra wasn’t in the book and feels forced and artificial here – every other scene involving Ender is of a kid that is tightly controlled/aware but yet he gets mushy over Petra? It just doesn’t work here. The squad dynamics and the increasingly unfair scenarios that Ender is forced to confront at Battle School are glossed over. There is a bizarre detour midway through the film that screws up the momentum (once again not part of the book) and that detour steals away from the Command School sequences which were extremely interesting in the books – the last quarter of the film has a very rushed quality as if they had wasted time earlier and wanted to speed things up to get to the end. It is all so very unfortunate because I believe the Director and Writers understood the central question I raised above – the business of turning children into monsters – but they couldn’t stay focused. It is maddening because for every great scene involving Harrison Ford or Viola Davis (the school psychologist) and Asa Butterfield, there were two scenes that really caused me to want to yell, ‘Why!?!? You were doing so well a minute ago!’.
The film is not a bad movie and I would recommend going to see it; Butterfield’s performance is great and it is good to see Ford in a sci-fi movie again. The final main sequence has a very well done space battle that actually manages to do something different. The movie is successful in being about something and manages to be a bit deeper than you typical science fiction movie. But in the end, if you are a fan of the book series; you might walk away mildly disappointed like I was. The audience deserved a deeply uncomfortable experience and the actors were clearly game; instead we just got entertainment.