When people start talking to me about what I do for a living, they often ask me what I like writing about when I do a review. Do I enjoy waxing rhapsodic about movies that I love? Sure. Do I get some sort of catharsis from tearing apart something that wasted my time and I explicitly don’t think people should pay money to see? Absolutely. But I always tell people that there is a third and very rare kind of film buried between those two equally fun extremes that’s just as rewarding to talk about; kind of like a diamond in the middle of the massive dirt strewn lot of mediocrity that’s the majority of cinema. It’s the film that gets almost exactly as much right as it does wrong, and I can think of no more perfect example of this type of anomaly than Ender’s Game. While watching it I simultaneously thought “Wow, I’m having fun,” “Wow, this is a mess,” and “Man, this is going to be fun to write about.” There’s a lot to enjoy about it, but there’s a compression to it that leads to one of the most awkwardly paced and mounted films in recent memory.
In the distant future and decades after the human race fought back an invasion from an enemy threat known as the Formics, the International Fleet (the world’s last line of defense), is gearing up for an attack believed to be much larger than the initial onslaught that caused tens of millions of casualties. The Fleet recruits young children for their game playing abilities and their aptitude for learning complex structures and sequences faster than older people. Enter Andrew Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young man handpicked by superior officers Graff (Harrison Ford) and Anderson (Viola Davis) to attend Battle School to prepare him to lead squadrons into battle against the encroaching menace. Ender finds himself constantly bullied, hazed, teased, and mocked, but he’s incredibly smart and bears the same violent streak as his washout older brother, but with a bit more self control and tactical know how.
Having never read Orson Scott Card’s source material, I honestly couldn’t say if the film is faithful to the book, but right off the bat something felt considerably off, and it’s hard to say if even reading the books is a necessary prerequisite. While watching the film it was abundantly clear that writer and director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has jettisoned large chunks of character development and possibly necessary explanation for the sake of keeping the movie under two hours in length. Within about ten minutes of the film starting, everything that one needs to know about Ender as person has been established. Within twenty minutes he’s already well into his training. After an hour he’s leading his own squadron, having overcome another bully standing in his way.
It all zips along nicely because it doesn’t feel like anything major is missing in terms of plotting, but what’s sorely lacking is a sense of who any of these people are and why the viewer should even care what happens to the human race. What’s anyone’s motivation here other than survival? What brought them here? Why do they do what they do? Outside of just a passing and cursory explanation for Ender’s behaviour, no one else gets even that much development.
That lack of character depth is a real shame since the cast is one of Hood’s strongest assets. Butterfield feels like a good fit for the lead role: charming, cunning, innocuous looking, latently sarcastic, and prone to almost coldblooded outbursts of rage. Similarly, Ford hasn’t been this good in quite some time, playing the gruff authoritarian with a wry smile and a genuine sense of purpose. He seems engaged by the material, and he’s giving a pretty decent performance, especially when he has Davis and Butterfield to act alongside. The three of them have great chemistry together. That is, until the film continues to speed along so fast that Davis has a sequence where she just simply resigns her post in a very brief scene and is never acknowledged beyond that point.
Even the supporting cast holds some big surprises from people stuck with ill defined roles. Hailee Steinfeld shows up as a fellow recruit of a more advanced standing that shows Ender some new tricks. Abigail Breslin shows up for a couple of scenes as Ender’s loving sister. Aramis Knight and Suraj Partha play Ender’s closest friends and best working partners. Moises Arias (seen earlier this year in The Kings of Summer) steals a few scenes as a menacing, higher ranking officer with a Napoleon complex determined to advance if it means making Ender’s life a living hell. Even Ben Kingsley shows up as a former war hero who ushers Ender through the final stage of his training. These are all reliable actors doing the best work possible, and while they seem to know what their characters are talking about, the audience never gets that same sense of assuredness. All I can think is that everyone either (1) read the book as research and went based off of that, (2) they were working from a script and film that was intended to be much longer than this, or (3) they are just the most preternaturally gifted group of people to ever be cast in a film together.
Visually, Hood’s work is stunning. Utilizing spinning cameras, off kilter framing, mostly high quality CGI (save for a couple of “Mind Game” virtual reality sequences that look like a low rent version of the recent Spielberg made Tintin film), and not relying on quick edits when they aren’t necessary, Hood creates a well production designed universe. Everything about Ender’s Game looks and feels top of the line, but once again, it’s the things these characters are doing within this world that leads one to give pause and scratch their head a few times.
For example, why when Ender first gets into training is he placed into a team based hybrid shoot out game in zero gravity? There’s nothing later in the movie to suggest that the capture the flag styled game teaches anything other than teamwork since no one ever uses their guns outside the arena. Why are there several montages of hand to hand combat shown? It comes into play once, and even then only very slightly, and again it’s forgotten about. There’s so much learning in Ender’s Game and about 95% of it are simulations of things that will only hypothetically happen, which means that no matter how awesome they look on screen, there are absolutely no stakes to anything happening. It’s like watching a movie made up almost entirely of dream sequences. There’s a tone of inventiveness and ingenuity, but not a lot to hang itself on.
There are also some incredibly hokey scenes that feel unexplained and just there as bookmarks from a draft of the film that ultimately wasn’t used or from a need for any kind of character development. An early sequence where Ender has to face his brother is far too brief to be as terrifying as it wants to be. A later scene where Ender chats with his sister on what one can only assume is a Tom Sawyer styled raft (assumed because we never see what it is exactly they are sitting on) feels shoehorned in to remind people that Breslin was actually still in the movie and not just someone Ender keeps emailing. It also includes one of my biggest pet peeves in movies: archival, allegedly first person shot footage that somehow manages to change between perfectly edited camera angles to show something absolutely no one involved could have seen.
I do understand that this film is supposed to be the launching pad for a potential franchise, but the effect of cramming all this story into a single entry feels like condensing the entire Harry Potter franchise into one movie. It seemingly can’t be done despite Hood’s best efforts. And yet, something about the breakneck pace of it all actually sells the film’s big third act twist in a way that feels surprising, but not unwelcome. It works on its own terms, and suggests there could be some potential room for a franchise. Then, of course, the film speeds up once again to lead to a cliffhanger ending so bafflingly abrupt that the audience I watched the film with seemed shocked, almost like the film just gave them whiplash and left them looking for the truck that just hit them.
Heck, the movie even comes in with its own built in controversy thanks to Card’s bigoted public statements about homosexuality. It’s unshakable for those who care about such things (which I do), but for what it’s worth, the film holds more good messages for younger viewers than bad. There are some interesting things to be said about bullying, responsibility, and the way authorial figures can manipulate children quite insidiously to do almost anything. Even on a grander level, the third act even musters up a modern day subtextual political statement about pre-emptively declaring war in the name of future safety and the use of drones. Hood might have found what so many people liked about Card’s material and nothing of what they dislike about him as a person. He’s done something that’s hard to do, which is to find hope and humanity within something that in the wrong hands could have come across as a fascist narrative.
I guess now on top of everything else, I have to address the potential boycott of the film from various groups. It’s understandable and commendable, but at the same time much like the film being boycotted there’s a distinct dichotomy in play. According to numerous sources, Card was already paid for the material about a decade ago and he stands to gain none of the film’s profits. Again, this is something coming from numerous outlets that claim to have “inside sources,” which means quite obviously that they are telling the truth or that they are lying. While I find Card’s personal statements to be reprehensible and hateful, I still have the obligation to give the film itself a fair shake, and it’s most likely easier for me to do that because he didn’t write or direct the actual film, and the final results are so scattershot that I can’t even discern any kind of authorial intent based on a book I haven’t even read.
So as you can see, Ender’s Game at the very least is an interesting enough film with plenty worth talking about, and yet is so decidedly in the middle of the bad/good spectrum that it’s almost impossible to recommend or condemn it outright. Ender’s Game is part of the reason why aggregates like Rotten Tomatoes and star based rating systems are inherently flawed and really kill the discourse that I love about film so much. It’s not a film that lends itself to a simple yes or no. It’s the kind of film you would either recommend or pan to a friend based on what you know about said friend’s tastes. If I had put a grade, star rating, or a 50/50 judgement on this review, it would have diluted the point entirely to worthlessness.
It should also be noted that since I was out sick most of this week, I paid to see Ender’s Game with a sold out audience on Thursday night. I always write my reviews from one ultimate perspective: would the type of person who would go to see this movie feel like they got their money’s worth? To be honest, when it comes to Ender’s Game, I just don’t know. I paid for it, and in terms of spectacle, I feel like I got my money’s worth. Do I feel like I got a good, well rounded movie? No, not really. All I know is I enjoyed writing about it immensely.