Ender’s Game is a much-loved science-fiction novel that has been a long time in the making. A thought-provoking, complex book about highly-intelligent child soldiers being pushed to the limit to try and combat their alien foes, it was called ‘unfilmable’ by the book’s author, Orson Scott Card.
The film opens with a young boy called Ender being chosen to attend Battle School by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). The school, situated in space, sees the children forming ‘armies’ who fight each other in a kind of zero gravity laser tag in the Battle Room. High hopes are pinned on Ender, who Graff attempts to immediately isolate from his peers as a way of seeing just how good a commander he can be.
There are parts of Ender’s Game which work well, the scenes in the Battle Room, and later the fights with The Formics, the alien race are all done really well. Likewise Ford, as the uncompromising Colonel Graff, is perfectly cast as someone who is in equal parts Ender’s friend as foe.
The problem with the film is that it is a weak dilution of its source material, and like Life of Pi or The Watchmen fails to do enough beyond its visual aesthetic to differentiate itself from the story on which it is based.
Recent adaptations like Cloud Atlas, The Great Gatsby, or The Hobbit may be flawed in parts, but at least when you watch these films the experience you are getting is quite different to the books on which they are based.
This is the basis of a good adaptation. After all anyone can put what is in the book onto the big screen, but for it to work, it must make the medium of film work for its story, and be prepared to make sacrifices and additions to do that.
Ender’s Game biggest problem is that it never seems to get going. It seems to want to move from place to place far too quickly, without ever taking time to let the audience breathe and appreciate what they are seeing.
The dramatic tension of the story is supposed to be between Ender and the adults in the film. However, we rarely see Ender fight against his clear mistreatment by the powers-that-be. Instead he is flung from situation to situation and seems to simply deal with it, rather than become angrier and angrier at his mistreatment by those up above. This lack of through-line seriously hampers his character development, and turns the film into an eight-year old’s re-telling of the book (remember when that cool thing happened!!!), rather than something with more emotional depth.
Another way to putting the experience of watching the film, is like reading the lyrics to a pop song without knowing its tune. Yes, we get a sense of what the song is about, but it is only by hearing the music that it tells us whether the track is happy or sad; angry or meditative.
There are moments in the film that do work, of course. In particular its ending is superbly well done, and worthy a further in-depth article into its implication and meaning.
Ender’s Game then is only really worth seeing if you haven’t read the book as it literally adds nothing that wasn’t already on the page. A shame, since in the hands of a braver director, this could have been a much more interesting film.