Movie Review: Ender's Game

Oh normal circadian rhythm, how I've missed you. It's been a phenomenal couple of weeks, but a few nights of truly solid sleep have been so very welcome. Extra Life, however, has needed no such recharge and is continuing to bring in donations which summed to nearly $3.9 million USD as of earlier today. If you'd like to get in the gaming marathon goodness, but came across Extra Life late in the year, or were one of those gamers adversely impacted by one or more of the four DDoSs that assailed the original event on November 2nd, then you're in luck. Extra Life is hosting a make-up day tomorrow, November 9th.

The gentle crawl out of sleep deprivation and back to some semblance of functionality has allowed me to dive headfirst into the plethora of geeky cinematic offerings being released this month. Seriously, between Thor 2: the Dark World, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (and it's strangely star-studded parody The Starving Games) and the film at the center of this post you could feasibly go from now until Thanksgiving with a new nerdy movie each week. If anything, it's an excellent distraction from the abrupt lack of daylight that hits us in the Northern Hemisphere around this time every year.

Few films that made their debut in 2013 have been so wrought with skepticism as Ender's Game. For every gorgeous production still or positive update from the set that made its way through the interwebs there was a collective cringing and sharp intake of air through clenched teeth. It's already a difficult task to transmute a very widely known and highly regarded work from one form of media to another; the stakes are exponentially higher when the end product is primarily visual and the crux of the beloved source material is the protagonist's internal monologue. It's a classic example of 'hope for the best, brace for the worst.' 

While there have been plenty of movie adaptations of first-person novels, the narrative vantage is only one of many reasons why Ender's Game was long considered to be 'unfilmable'. Not only does a significant amount of the story development occur in Ender's headspace, but most audiences do not take well to violence and deep-seated cynicism playing out amongst a cadre of very young protagonists. Fancy that. Furthermore, the novel itself is somewhat dense and circuitous, two characteristics that can often be adequately explored in a TV series, but rarely in the time span allotted to a feature film. Add to all of this a few decades of administrative shenanigans hampering development and a high probability that large swaths of the target demographic would boycott the film due to disagreements with the very publicly held personal beliefs of author Orson Scott Card.

Ok, ok. So the question remains: did Ender's Game successfully cast all that aside? Does it make a movie of such 'unfilmable' material? Short answer: sort of.

 The movie does quite a bit right. The majority of the casting is spot-on and the actors do a remarkable job capturing the angst and moral dilemmas that were rife throughout the novel. Asa Butterfield portrays the tactical prodigy Ender with borderline preternatural skill and completely owns the role. Both Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley turn in convincingly tight, gripping performances as Colonel Graff and Mazer Rackham respectively while Moises Arias creates a genuine threat as Bonzo Madrid. While the majority of the supporting cast are remarkably solid, a handful of the actors come across as somewhat lost at times, but we'll get to why that is in a moment.

The visual aspect of the film is another plus point, with the creative team benefiting from Card's rather sparse descriptions in the source text. The battle room is rendered with especially brilliant care and the scenes shot therein are some of the movie's best. Those instances where the action turns away from the blackness of space are contrastingly lush and vibrant (in the case of Earth) or garish and desiccated (the Formic home world). What we see of the orbital battle school and all interstellar craft fit perfectly with what the original novel laid out but also feel like legitimate extensions of existing technology, the latter point can likely be attributed to Mr. Elon Musk, who consulted on the film.

The movie takes very concerted pains to remain faithful to the source material, which we get to experience as prominent visual details and numerous remarks, but the emotional weight of the novel is wholly lost in the cinematic translation. The decision seems to have been that the film would try to use brute force to overcome the challenges it faced and power through the narrative at break-neck speed. The relentless pacing does keep the audience engaged, but also prevents them from making any sort of meaningful attachment to what they're seeing. Those who have read the novel will understand what's going on and know who everyone is, but those who haven't may be hard-pressed to care about certain characters and events when they appear or are explained for only a few minutes at a time.

The pacing isn't enough to ruin Ender's Game, but it does make the overall experience feel a bit hollow. Moreover, it can be frustrating to see how close the movie came to being very good. It's also going to be interesting to see how a sequel will be handled, if one ever gets made, since the protagonists and events that make up many of the successor books garner either a few moments of screen time or are not included at all. We get to meet Bean, but he only has a handful of lines and the Demosthenes/Locke interplay between Ender's siblings, Valentine and Peter, is omitted entirely. Understandably, not everything in the book could be translated into the movie, but a handful of the production choices will strike reader/viewers as odd.

All in all, a solid effort to tackle some legitimately difficult material, but it falls lamentably short.

Overall Grade: C

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