If you were any kind of geek in the mid-'80s or even '90s, a copy of the 1985 Ender's Game probably ended up in your hands, and you probably liked it. I got into it a little late, or sosince I was too busy discovering Pink Floyd or something while all my friends were going nuts over Orson Scott Card's wild book. When I finally got around to reading it, I gave the story a solid B, but the older I get, the more its merits grow on me. Watching the film adaptation made me appreciate just how complex the novel really is, sadly, because of how tactlessly writer/director Gavin Hood (Rendition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) oversimplified the story.
Ender's Game takes place in the not-too-distant future where life doesn't feel all that different from the world of 2013except we fight wars in space against swarms of insect-like aliens. Ever since the military drove off the first invasion, humanity has been on the technological fast track to make sure the aliens never threaten Earth again. Its top program involves inducting children in order to exploit their quick reflexes and aptitude for video games against a tactically superior enemy. Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) ruthlessly trains the kids to pilot attack drones in an upcoming counterstrike. He has chosen 12-year-old Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) to command the fleet.
To its credit, the film places us comfortably in the setting. The visual design is solid and inviting and the battle-room scenes are handled with high-spirited finesse. The rest of the CG feels like someone pulled it off a shelfwhich has been true of just about every flick since Avatar, to be fair. Let's just say there's nothing particularly wretched with the effects in Ender's Game. They're good enough. Whatever. It's not Gavin Hood's fault that today's producers shave their budgets with recycled vfx. So you have your run-of-the-mill sci-fi flick complete with phoned-in documentary-style quick zoom and shaky cam. I've come to accept the fact that this is what I'm in for. Every. Single. Time. Fine, but now is your chance to use the formula to tell a story using sterling material that's already been written for you.
Maybe that's the problem. Maybe Hood didn't feel he had to work that hard for it. Most of Ender's Game consists of rushed scenes with no clear direction, uninspired editing and an occasional bid for substance. The few clenching moments in the film owe their strength to Butterfield (Hugo), who does a bang-up job considering how much the script gutted Ender's character. The beauty of Card's novel, like any story involving a "coming of age," are the intense changes Ender goes through from start to finish, and the way his understanding and emotions develop. But the scripted Ender is no different in the last five minutes of the film than he was in the first. He's been through a lot, has gained new information and experience, but there's really no sense that his character has evolved in any tangible way.
Something else that rarely changes is the movie's tone. It starts drudgingly heavy and sticks to that key 85 percent of the time. The actors seem to have been allowed only two moods: confrontational or reassuring. One thing's for certain, they will either be yelling at each other or exchanging warm glances. This is the extent of character development for the supporting cast. But even for all this injected intensity, Hood's movie still manages to pull its punches. The conflict between Ender's hyper-rational killer instinct and his genuine compassion is consistently watered down.
If you love the novel, the film will probably make you sad. You'll remember how Ender's siblings manipulated a global communications network to inspire revolutionary action (Card's novel famously anticipates the cultural face of the Internet), and wonder why, in the film, they've been reduced to nothing but the angel and devil on Ender's shoulders. In the book, Ender takes the strategies he learns in his social encounters with other kids and applies them to his military tactics. But in the film his ingenious methods are only mildly explored, and usually through expository voiceovers. You'll also wonder why the "mind game" sub-plot, where Ender plays a fantasy role-playing game that gradually takes on aspects of his private life, revs up a little momentum only to ultimately disappoint. Even if you're new to Ender's Game, the movie is still likely to fall somewhere in the realm of mediocre. Take your 10 bucks and buy the book.
Ender's Game continues at the Carmike 12.