***** SPOILER ALERT *****
This review will be discussing plot points which may be considered spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.
***** DISCLAIMER *****
This is a review of the movie Ender’s Game and of the movie only. There will not be any discussion of the author or his personal politics. If you wish to discuss such things there are plenty of places for you to do so, however we request that you refrain from doing so here.
Aliens attack Earth, kick our ass, and Earth barely survives. This basic setup is nothing new and yet it sets the scene for the beginning of Ender’s Game. What makes Ender’s Game special however is where the film takes this setup. Instead of running over the well trodden paths, this film chooses to take the road less travelled and does so quite well.
Ender’s Game is about Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a brilliant young boy who is part of a military selection program for training to be a military commander. When the monitoring device implanted in Ender’s neck is removed he thinks he has been passed over for entrance into the military school. Ender has very little time to be concerned about this, as he is attacked by older boys shortly thereafter and Ender beats one of them severely. That night at home, Ender and his family are approached by Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) who informs them that the monitor removal was the final test, and not only has Ender not washed out, but he has been selected to move on. Thus begins an incredible adventure that takes viewers from Earth all the way out into deep space.
It’s been about ten years since I’ve read Ender’s Game, but this film seems pretty true to the book that I remember. Obviously the filmmakers can’t be expected to put the entire book into the movie and cuts had to be made, but I feel that they chose those cuts well. In fact, the cuts felt more like time compression. The most obvious instance of this is Battle School. This particular portion of Ender’s training takes up the majority of the book and while it is a major focus of the movie, the section has been clearly shortened. There are only a handful of training battles shown in the movie and—while they are even more fantastic looking than what I had imagined— far fewer battles than I remember from the book. The only real downside to this is that it doesn’t show the same progression of difficulty that is readily apparent in the book. Any time where there is a repetitive action, like the battles, the time compression comes into play.
The other major cuts revolve around the Mind Game. The game still plays a significant part in the movie, but in the book Ender runs through the game over and over again until he solves a problem, at which point he runs into a new problem and starts the cycle over. By cutting out much of this, movie makers are able to maintain the importance of this plot device without spending too much time on it.
This plays into one of the movie’s strengths: that of pacing. This is a movie that keeps on moving. At no point did I feel bogged down in obscure details of the story. The plot pushed forward at a brisk pace throughout the movie, developing characters and giving them challenges of ever increasing magnitude. The climax of the movie presents a stunning scenario that would be impossible for anybody but Ender to overcome.
I loved the way this movie looked. The zero g battle room is awesome. I love that because there is no gravity in the battle room the director doesn’t feel obligated to stick with conventional camera angles. It was very refreshing to see these unconventional angles interspersed with the more common shooting style.
The other scenes I loved were those in the combat simulations at Command School. All the kids sit in an auditorium with Ender and his senior commanders on an elevated platform and all around them are wonderful looking projections of the ensuing battle simulation. Scenes like this made the movie visually appealing as well as engaging from a plot standpoint.
Historically, one of the toughest aspects of a film like this is the casting. It’s easy enough to find one or two good kids, but finding almost an entire child cast of this caliber is remarkable. Asa Butterfield does an amazing job as Ender. He provides the right mix of brilliance, empathy, and emotional detachment without being wooden—no easy feat! It would have been very easy for Ender to come off as merely a bad impersonation of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Butterfield makes the viewer feel for Ender, by showing emotion when it’s required but not so much that he breaks character.
The supporting cast is also wonderful. Ender’s sister Valentine, played by Abigail Breslin, provides a welcome bit of warmth. Where Ender is mostly rational and only slightly warm, Valentine is empathy personified–the trait for which she was dropped from the military selection program. Among the best supporting actors in the film is Moises Arias who plays Bonzo Madrid, one of Ender’s company commanders. Bonzo is a complete control freak and mild sociopath and Arias plays this without being over the top and becoming silly. Even though Bonzo is honestly a little jerk, moviegoers still feel for him because he is just a kid, struggling to achieve his potential and impress those in power over him.
Ender’s Game demonstrates the disturbing nature of child soldiers in dystopian science fiction stories. Although it’s used less frequently than other plot devices, it’s one of the most unsettling, in part because onlookers see those who should be innocent acting with cunning and violent intent. In modern society, the international system has taken great pains to ensure that children like this are not forced to fight, and yet moviegoers find themselves rooting for a child soldier, in the form of Ender. In the end Ender becomes the supreme commander he was born to be, and the audience is left asking what was the cost to Ender and to themselves as a society. I give Ender’s Game 4.5 Death Stars.