Movie review: Ender’s Game

In his early career, I was enthralled by the works of Orson Scott Card.  He had the ability to create vivid phantasmagorical worlds with protagonists in agonizing situations that you couldn’t have anything but sympathy for.  In college, I was in a science fiction book club, and accidentally received one of his books, ‘Wryms’.  I was surprised by how good it was, and subsequently searched out everything of his I could get my hands on at the time.

I think in his novel, ‘Ender’s Game’, Card was at his peak.   A tale of brilliant but very young children caught up in deadly serious story of humanity’s war with an alien species.  Like many of his early novels, it haunted me long after I had finished it.

Card remains a master story teller, but I haven’t found his later work to be anywhere near as compelling.  And it’s pretty well known that he lost a lot of fans and goodwill with his blinkered views on homosexual rights and gay marriage, some of which he let bleed into some of those later stories.

That said, I don’t recall anything like that in the novel, and this review is specifically about the movie.  For an adaptation, it follows the book fairly well, at least as far as my memory is concerned.  (It’s actually been at least twenty years since I read the book.)  One significant deviation is that the children are older in the movie than in the book, but I’m willing to give the producers a break on that given the challenges they would have faced with very young actors.

Overall, the movie is well made, with high production values, excellent casting, and superb visual effects.  Asa Butterfield nailed the right combination of vulnerability, empathy, and tactical brilliance of the main character.

I was also impressed that the space sequences didn’t completely abandon Newtonian mechanics for spacecraft maneuvering, at least in the early parts of the film.  The orbiting battle school sequences are not that far off from how I remembered imagining them in the book.

The movie does deviate a bit in the second half.  The advanced training takes place on a planet near the alien’s home world instead of on an asteroid in our solar system.  The exact reasons why show up in the last parts of the movie, where the producers obviously wanted to find a way to quickly work through the final parts of the story that, in the book, took place over several years.

And I think that brings me to my chief criticism of this film.  It wants to move fast, probably too fast to tell the complex story of the novel.  It ends up omitting things that added a lot of richness to the story.  Of course, every film adaptation does that, but I think this one might have cut too much into the bone in the name of brevity.  The result was a story that, to me, felt rushed and didn’t capitalize as well on the emotional milestones of the novel as it could have.

That said, I enjoyed the movie.  It resembled the book well enough to recreate the surreal and tragic circumstances of the story.  This is a tale of children being manipulated by adults who understand themselves to be in a desperate fight to save humanity.  And that makes those adults willing to inflict incredible pressure on these children, and to put them at risk in questionable ways.

So, not as good as it could have been, but still recommended.

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9 Responses to Movie review: Ender’s Game

  1. Steve Morris says:

    I read the book just a few months ago. While I enjoyed it I felt that there were a couple of structural issues with it [SPOILER] – we never see the aliens (I hope the film remedies that) and the circumstance of the final battle are such that the reader feels “robbed” from not experiencing it directly. I didn’t see the point of doing it that way, and I wonder if the movie simply tells the story “straight”.

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    • Having read it more recently, I’d imagine you’ll see a lot more differences between movie and book than I did. On your question, I’ll just say that I think the movie handled it well. You’re welcome to drop me an email if you’d like more details.

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  2. The Hot Rod says:

    Your sentiments about the brevity of the film are spot on, dude. The film never really felt like it could stop and take its time getting into the characters – it just HAD to get to the next action sequence. Such as shame, really. Nice review!!

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  3. amanimal says:

    While I doubt I’ll see the movie I did very much enjoy the book as the ending caught me quite by surprise – always enjoyed that sudden “no … what a minute … really?” and then simply “wow”.

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  4. I agree – I think the biggest faults of the movie were odd ones: it was too short, and too clear. Usually adaptations suffer the opposite problems, but I felt this one could have used more grit and emotional building (which takes time) and more mystery to help sweep the viewer along. As it turned out, the bones of the film were good, but it suffered from a problem that plagues Card’s later work in the Ender series (they seem to degrade steadily as they go on) – it preaches and tells, rather than employing the excellent “show” and “reveal” he was so good at in Ender’s Game.

    Or maybe I just felt cheated that there weren’t more battle room scenes.

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  5. I like your review better than another I read earlier — think I’ll wait for TV showing though.

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