"The way we win matters." - Ender Wiggin
One fateful evening in a Barnes & Noble's bookstore, a twelve-year-old boy-bored out of his mind-was forced to tag along with an older sibling who wanted to find a complete collection of Shakespeare plays. At least he was free to look around the store, and he eventually felt at home in the sci-fi section, which had the most interesting covers.
Robots, deep space and aliens graced his field of vision, but nothing seemed interesting enough to pick up.
You see, he wasn't much of a reader. In fact, he could hardly make it through his school's assigned reading. Just then, he saw a dark paperback of a space station in orbit, a small yellow ship in the bottom corner, and the big green title of Ender's Game. This made the boy wonder. Who's Ender? What kind of game is he playing? This boy read the back cover, and then he cracked it open. Something about those first few pages spoke to him, pages that spoke of a humble boy who wanted to be left alone by his bullies-something that this real boy in this real world could relate to. With what little cash he had, this boy bought the book. He took it home and he read it in one night. Of his own free will. With his own money. Without anyone telling him what to read or what not to. The book helped him think, helped him approach his problems differently than he otherwise would have, and ultimately convince him that books are worthy of pursuing a career in writing for himself.
I know this boy well, for I still own his well-read copy.
In the writing world, it is often said that if you write a book that manages to reach out and touch the life of just one person, you've done your job-more so if they change for the better. As much as I wanted a movie made of this classic novel, I knew it would have its challenges. These many years later, I've even dreaded it. Why? You're in Ender's head so much that the reader is often left to the imagination on what the setting looks like. Orson Scott Card himself said his novel is unfilmable, and for decades, Hollywood didn't know how to present the film visually. But Gavin Hood was willing to try. I knew approaching this film as a reviewer would be difficult, and while I can't say I'm thrilled with the final product, I'm truly satisfied in a way that, much like Ender, I never saw coming. Defying the author's claim of his unfilmable novel, Gavin Hood's adaptation of Ender's Game is a solid one, with honest acting and compelling visual splendor.
After an alien invasion nearly wiped out the human race fifty years ago, the International Fleet has been training and preparing for the next invasion. Children have been recruited at a young age to become future commanders, and one Colonel Graff is on the search for the one child who can bring an end to this horrific war. He then finds Ender, a boy with a thin balance of violence and compassion. By taking him to an orbiting battle school, Ender will be tested physically and emotionally-and psychologically-to see if he is truly the only one who can save humanity. Ender didn't ask for this war, but for his sister, he will face his enemy and win a war within.
Being familiar with the Ender saga, I certainly appreciated the overall integrity of the story with its lines taken straight from the source material-and not being afraid to keep some of the more troubling moments that Ender encounters. You see where Ender is coming from, how he doesn't want to be hurt, and what he is willing to do to ensure his safety and security, even at the expense of no privacy and no board of ethics for training children to be killers. Ender's Game was and always has been a morality play with strong anti-war/anti-military leanings. This doesn't imply the personal option of creator or filmmaker per say, but it forces the engaged to turn their minds on and to question when, in the midst of conflict, the fighting should stop. By staying true to this principle pleases me as a fan of the material, thus saving this film's skin, in my opinion.
The film gains a better portion of its strength by its well-chosen cast, albeit Harrison Ford's Colonel Graff seemed a bit grumpier than I imagined him. I originally envisioned the setting to be much darker as well, a stark contrast to the brightly-lite hallways and colorful touchscreens in this digital rendition. As Ender, Asa Butterfield aced his role that he seemed custom tailored to fill, and Hailee Steinfeld nailed Petra's character as a faithful friend and (thankfully) not as a love interest, which is an element of young adult stories that they can't seem to exist without.
As for the technical aspects of the film, the one thing that didn't disappoint was the battle room. What kid hasn't imagined going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Harry Potter wasn't around for my youth, so instead, I wanted nothing more than to fly into zero gravity and battle others in the ultimate game of freeze tag you could ever imagine. I loved every minute of those battle room scenes. Deep down, I wish there were a lot more of them, but then the story wouldn't advance much. These scenes, combined with a smooth score by Steve Jablonsky, made the games and simulated battles engaging and visually stimulating.
And more importantly, fun.
What held me back most was the pacing of the overall feature. The film starts off as rocky and stilted, instilling in me an anxiety that this would be the film's nature, start to finish. Thankfully, the storytelling improved gradually and it never took a step back, resulting in a climax that was worth the multiple promotions that the first hour and a half consisted of. Call it editing oversight, but this film would have served better if we were properly introduced to our characters and given a chance know them before jumping into actions that viewers wouldn't understand their reasons for doing so. To an Ender fan, the first few minutes of the film was a strict bullet point, and I can certainly see how those unfamiliar with the material can find themselves scratching their heads.
By film's end, we learn it's not winning that matters-how we win matters. Taking that lesson to heart, you can say that telling stories isn't what matters-it's how you tell the story that matters. Ender's Game, as a film, could have approached its storytelling in a less-jarring fashion, but its retention, exploration, and conversation on war and morality is deeply engrained and preserved, hopefully for a new generation who can benefit from this immortal lesson. For this alone, I salute Mr. Hood for engaging in a project that many in Hollywood were afraid to touch for nearly three decades, and proving that you are above that X-Men Origins: Wolverine fiasco. Seriously, if I hear an excuse to dismiss this film for that reason one more time, I'll sick the Formics on you.
On another note, this film is excellently visualized. Given the lack of detail of what the setting looks like in the novel, this film is the visual companion that fans have been hoping for, a give-and-take from a novel that draws strength from a deeply internalized main character. What remains to be seen from this moment onward is whether or not we'll see Butterfield reprise his role as Ender in future installments of the Ender Saga which, in my opinion, has far better adaptation potential than this first outing. We don't have enough big screen franchises centered in deep space, and this could be the start of a great one that the sci-fi genre desperately needs.
*By Movieweb's Diaigma-resemblance to other reviews is coincidental*