Movie Review: Ender's Game
By Matthew Huntley
November 5, 2013

I knew River Phoenix. River Phoenix was a friend of mine. And you, kid, are no River Phoenix.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion one of the reasons Hollywood even considered adapting Ender’s Game into a feature was due to the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter movies. After all, the two have a lot in common - both center on a young boy, just on the verge of adolescence, who’s sent off to a special type of school because the overseeing adults believe he’ll one day play an integral role in the destruction of evil. What’s good about Ender’s Game, and this is something fans of the book may have been concerned about, is it’s been made with care - enough, in fact, that it’s able to stand on its own, apart from its source, which is what all film adaptations should drive to do.

Like many science fiction stories, Ender’s Game takes place in the distant future, years after mankind has endured two wars with an alien race called the Formics (a.k.a. “Buggers”). The Formics attempted to establish a colony on Earth to harvest the planet’s water, but humans fought against the insect-looking, non-vocal creatures. The movie opens with footage of a renowned soldier and pilot, Mazer Rackham, allegedly sacrificing himself by flying his jet into the Formics’ mother ship, taking out the “Queen Ant,” as she’s referred, and thus paralyzing the rest of the fleet.

Years later, members of the International Fleet, including Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), have reason to believe the Formics are planning a vengeful third invasion. To prepare themselves for another war, the IF has been recruiting children they believe to have the best minds and skills for military strategy and testing them in the highly competitive Battle School. One such recruit is Andrew Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), known to others as a “third” because he’s the third child to his parents’ (Stevie Ray Dallimore and Andrew Powell) under a two-child only mandate (his parents had to ask the government for permission to have him). Graff and Anderson believe Ender’s inherent ostracism, and gift for preventing future conflicts by invoking fear into his enemies, make him a primary candidate to be an objective, pragmatic leader, one who can conquer the Formics once and for all.

And so Ender’s Game, like Harry Potter, revolves around the young protagonist’s trials and tribulations as he’s conditioned to become something greater than he knows, along with his own natural growing pains. And just like Harry, Ender is smart, intuitive and overcomes challenges through pluck and pragmatism. He excels in school and, in a continuing effort to set him apart from the other cadets, Graff makes him the youngest commander of one of the school’s army teams, who take part in routine battle simulations in a zero gravity environment. In his spare time, Ender also finds a way to beat a rigged video game that’s meant to evaluate the kids’ emotional state, which leads him to a significant revelation about his enemy.

Despite his success, Ender carries with him a lot of anger and resentment, which are no doubt the result of years of bullying from the kids at school and his older and jealous brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak). His one friend and constant has been his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), who is the only person Ender confides in and loves, probably because he feels she’s the only one who truly listens.

Aspects such as these feel condensed and slightly brushed over compared to Orson Scott Card’s novel, which offered more substance, mood and depth than the movie. It also contained more battle simulations, which contributed greatly to Ender’s psychosis and emotional state. There was also an entire subplot involving Peter and Valentine back on Earth that’s been all but removed from the film, most likely to keep the runtime down. Whether or not those unfamiliar with the book will pick up on these shortcuts remains to be seen, but I was hoping the movie would have been more drawn out so we could gain a better sense of this world and understand what Ender was going through.

That’s not to say Ender’s Game, which has been adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, doesn’t have its own virtues and efficacy. It maintains the essence of its source and, amidst all the sensationalism, explores the moral and ethical ramifications of Battle School and the idea of preparing for a war that may never come, not to mention the toll rigorous training takes on the minds and lives of young people.

On top of this, Ender’s Game works splendidly as pure, sci-fi entertainment. It’s got distinct, memorable characters; exciting action sequences; dazzling special effects; and, above all, a heart and mind. Despite the fact it negotiates the more complex subjects of the book, there are still fiery, intense and engaging scenes to behold, especially between Ender and Graff. Asa Butterfield, whom you might recognize as the titular character from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, has a commanding presence and he and Ford create real, intense drama, the kind that resonates with us after we leave the theater. They help raise the movie beyond the label of “kiddie sci-fi flick” and bring it up to a level where even adults are listening to what they have to say and taking their words to heart.

As an initial entry in a potential movie franchise, Ender’s Game has won the first battle of getting us to care about the characters and their cause. And, if given the chance, I believe Hood, or any good filmmaker, could really hone in and examine the varying ideologies the books brought to the table, making the movies that much richer and more meaningful. Despite being published over 10 years before the first Harry Potter and, who knows, perhaps laying the latter’s groundwork, Ender’s Game is unfortunately not as popular. But I think it could reach bigger heights, and even if people only see it for its entertainment value, I believe they’ll want the story to continue and the sequels to be adapted as well. Just like Ender, it’s not done yet and has places to go.