This film pleasantly surprised me and I had no trouble suspending disbelief and buying right into the tale of a young boy turned military messiah destined to save humanity from an alien race that years prior invaded Earth and damn near killed all of us too.
I will preface this review by stating that the film Ender’s Game is NOT the book Ender’s Game. It is very easy to compare the source material to the newer text however trying to compare a novel to a Hollywood Blockbuster with a limited time frame to tell a very detailed story….well the book will win out. Furthermore that comparison is silly as well. One is printed word and the other is a visual/aural text. Not the same in production or consumption so we will just stick to discussing the film.
Except for one thing; the thing this movie does right by the book. The movie captures the themes of the book exceedingly well. The horror of warfare, people in authority lie, camaraderie, can you trust others, and isolation are all shown here. The film adds the loss of innocence into the mix as well and that is due more to being able to see the reactions of the students at the Battle School and Command School as the full reality of what the are going to do (and will do) bears down on them.
Speaking of the Battle School, I want to play in that zero gravity laser tag arena known as the Battle Room. My word that was fun to watch as the “launchies” got their space legs and practiced maneuvers to win a “game” that offered a promotion to the Command School. As the games are played out the more tactical it becomes yet you still see that they are kids because they still think like kids. They are fearless and come up with ideas adults would not consider.
Skipping ahead to the films third act we arrive at the Command School and are introduced to the Ansible; a command display for the war simulations Ender and his crew practice fleet combat against a virtual Formic (bugger) threat. It opens up into a virtual environment where Ender can command the entire fleet in an omnipresent manner. It looks pretty cool and showcases everything Microsoft wanted to do with their Kinect
doorstop sensor but cannot. Basically when it comes to the Battle Room and Ansible science needs to get on this before we are all too old to play with them.
Now visually the film is quite good-looking. All the effects are sharp, crisp, and clear. The coloring of the film almost gives it a comic book look as there are quite a few bright colors used throughout. I believe this was to off set just how serious the film is at times. Each scene is crafted well; nothing is too jarring or confusing within the mise en scene, everything keeps adding to the story, and it all fits together to create this world. Sound works well too; from the hearty rumble of the booster rockets of the shuttle taking Ender to the Battle School orbiting Earth to the clicking noises the buggers make it all fits together.
How about the actors? Asa Butterfield (Ender Wiggin), Hailee Steinfeld (Petra Arkanian) do admirable jobs in their respective roles. I do enjoy how Butterfield managed to show through subtle expressions and motions how Ender is smarter than the others and is always thinking of ways to defeat an opponent. The shower scene is a perfect example and no I will not ruin that. I will say that I would have liked to see more personal strength from Hailee’s portrayal of Petra though; after playing a strong-willed girl in True Grit (2010) this was a tad bit soft considering this is a war movie. Minor nitpick but you’ll have this. The supporting cast of kids is also well put together and each are likable or detestable as the role dictates.
The real fun in the casting is the military leaders. Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff is great. He pulls off being the military man driven to ending the war at all costs so humanity can survive. Graff knows what he is doing to these kids and you see it in his eyes but he forces it down for the greater good. Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson is very much Graff’s conscious in the film. She keeps reminding Graff that these are kids and this stress can break them. Nonso Anozie as Sergeant Dap was a minor character in the book but this big man with a huge personality brought life to the screen each time he was on. I wanted to see more of him in the film. But the one that stole the movie for me was the one that got so much grief due to the casting and look. Sir Ben Kingsley’s Mazer Rackham is something else. As the character is part Maori from New Zealand Ben has the tribal facial tattoos. People saw this in stills and freaked out some. However when you are introduced to him and the subsequent scenes with him the audience will see he was perfect for this role and the look works. I wanted Rackham to be there for the entire film in a large capacity. I want more of Rackham and his story. How Ben carries himself as the soft-spoken grizzled veteran comes so naturally that you could believe he is a soldier. He is Ender’s last instructor and well worth the wait to get him on-screen.
The story itself flowed nicely and kept a steady tension going through out that Earth is running out of time and we need to act now. So while a fan of the book may find it rushed in the parameters of the film it flows nicely. We do get to see these soldiers grow up and mature as much as they can in such a short time. We get a nice progression from green cadet to full-fledged soldier. In a sense we have seen this story before in the HALO video games; the use of children to train and alter into soldiers (specifically the Spartans in HALO). At least while watching this film, if you never read the book nor heard of the Ender series, you can see how John 117 may have gotten his start***.
The film’s climax and ending should have you talking. To those who know please keep your mouth shut and let those who don’t experience it as you did when you read it. It is a sad, serious moment that leads to a glimpse of hope before the credits roll. Frankly it was outright satisfying to watch this unfold on the screen with some of the best acting in the film taking place at this point.
So regardless of some of the other reviews of this film that 1) compare it to the book or 2) delve into Orson Scott Card’s homophobic personal beliefs (none of which appear in the film or novel I might add) and how they want to boycott this movie because of it…well I would say that if you want to see a decent science fiction film with strong themes, wonderful effects, good acting, and a well paced story you would be amiss to pass on Ender’s Game. I am happy to have seen it and more happy it opened in the Fall and away from the summer movie glut where it would have been lost in the quagmire that is summer movie season. This was, as mentioned earlier, pleasantly surprised me, was enjoyable, and will leave you feeling cinematically full. As much as I wanted to discuss plot points I tried to keep away from specifics so I do not spoil your viewing.
Finally if Ender’s Game is not your cup of tea but you want epic space: Gravity.
Hell just go see Gravity too! My choice for best film this year bar none.
*** Or if you want to find out how Master Chief became the soldier he is today read Eric Nylund’s “The Fall of Reach”. You will see similarities in training for Ender and the Spartans.