First, a note: This is probably the hardest review I have ever written because I try not to read books before I see the movie. I'm not a book critic and I don't care if someone thinks a book was better than the film version. My task is to review the movie itself and determine whether or not it works as a movie.
With that said, “Ender's Game” and its direct sequel “Speaker for the Dead” are two of my favorite books. I've read them almost every summer for the past decade. I know the material intimately and, because of this, find it difficult to separate the story I love from the film version.
Still, I must try. Away we go …
There's so much going on in “Ender's Game,” between the fast-moving plot and the multitude of questions it raises, that I feel bad for anyone who has to leave for even a minute to use the potty*.
There's a flood of information and almost all of it is vital to understanding any of the bizarre events that occur. Miss one or two important moments and you might not have a clue what is happening.
The film follows a brilliant child named Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”) who is recruited to join a battle school located on a space station. This school was created in the years following an alien attack on earth that killed millions to turn the world's smartest children into top-notch generals for any future battles with the aliens.
Everything, from the space station to the battles, looks fantastic. The set design is top-notch and the special effects are frequently jaw-dropping. Screenwriter/director Gavin Hood and cinematographer Donald McAlpine (“Moulin Rouge!”) capture the action with a unique paintbrush: the monotony of color in some scenes contrasts strongly with the vivid, dreamlike colors of other scenes. The entire experience, visually, feels alive.
The cast also delivers. Butterfield finds all the right notes as a child who is equally confused, terrified, stressed, lonely, caring, focused and determined. Ender's intelligence and maturity are well past his years. Butterfield, somehow, simultaneously projects all of this.
Harrison Ford delivers his best performance in years as Colonel Graff, a high-ranking official heavily involved with the battle school who sees something special in Ender. It's his job to find ways to push and challenge Ender, frequently pushing Ender so hard you start to wonder if moral or ethical lines are being crossed.
I believe, in lesser hands, Graff could have been easy to hate. Ford manages to find the humanity inside, the person who cares about Ender and doesn't like doing what he knows he has to for the greater good.
This is one of many interesting moral and ethical questions raised in “Ender's Game.” I believe many people will have fantastic, meaningful conversations afterwards.
The film's biggest problem is that it moves too fast. The plot develops quickly as interesting questions are raised, but Hood shifts into the next gear every time he should be slowing down to see the pretty flowers. The information is presented faster than the time needed to process and enjoy it in a film that only runs 114 minutes. Twenty extra minutes could have done wonders.
The film also does a poor job of explaining the aliens. We know that they've created advanced spaceships and developed excellent war skills, but we don't get a real feeling for who they are or what they're like or why they do the things they do. This is a big issue since caring about, or at least feeling empathy for, the aliens is rather important to the story.
“Ender's Game” is still a very unique experience and a good film. Still, I can't help but think about how great a film it could have been if Hood and company had approached the material with a little more patience.
“Ender's Game” is rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.
*That's right, I said “potty.” I don't care. I'll do it again. Potty.