Last year’s Ender’s Game film had about 907 listed “producers.” I figured that wasn’t a good sign, especially when two of those producers were the Hollywood equivalent of Harry and Lloyd from the popular comedy film, “Dumb and Dumber”. I’m of course talking about our favorite Star Trek violators Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman.
I knew most of those 907 producers were probably just phony bearded weasel guys who happened to know somebody who knew somebody, but I assumed Orci and Kurtzman would get at least some of their trademark creative ejaculant all over what was a much anticipated production.
I mean, these guys have been Hollywood heavyweights for quite some time now, and if they say “suck,” a lot of filmmakers out there say “how hard?” They were the visionaries behind such genre masterworks as Transformers 1–3 and Cowboys and Aliens. These are the boneheads that somehow leveraged a basic ability to operate computer screenwriting software into a prosperous career “writing” huge studio tentpole “screenplays.”
When I had heard these guys had managed to worm their way into the long-awaited big screen version of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, I basically shrugged my shoulders and pre-visualized myself writing a snarky movie review titled “Ender’s Lame”. I couldn’t wait. Though my Ender’s Game review would have to wait for Netflix, because there was no way I was wasting 12 bucks on an Orc/Kurtz production. So I guess I could wait.
As was surely the case with everyone who has read and loved the book, I’ve always thought an Ender’s Game movie could be damn good if approached from the right angle. I was hoping for some ballsy and talented director to come in and adapt the material to match his own sensibilities and elevate the story to a whole new level, in the same way Stanley Kubrick came in and transformed Steven King’s The Shining into something much greater than a simple literal page-to-screenplay translation would have been.
Kubrick had made a great book even better. That’s the kind of upgrade I was pipe-dreaming for when it came time for a movie version of Ender’s Game. Then, like a rip-roaring fart in the dead of the night, the news broke: there was finally going to be a movie version of Ender’s Game, and—cue the Darth Vader “Noooooooooo!”—Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman were going to be involved. That sobered me up right quick.
I immediately downgraded my expectations. I was no longer hoping for some unique cinematic transcendence of Card’s sci-fi classic. Now I was simply hoping the screenplay would be clear of lazy, ill-conceived deus ex machina “quick fixes,” such as the much lauded “magic blood” and the insanely convenient “transwarp beaming” storytelling band-aides recklessly employed in the duo’s Star Trek reboots.
I mean, these are the type of screenwriters that, when presented with a storytelling difficulty their collective brain power can’t solve, they just throw magic at the problem. Yes, in the case of Ender’s Game, the story had already been thoroughly laid out by a real, bonafied science fiction writer, so Orci and Kurtzman—who were to be producers on Ender’s Game, not actual screenwriters—were somewhat less likely to get confused into summoning their “magic” once again. But still. These men are dark wizards and they’re not to be trusted.
For more unfiltered Kubrick love, read my review of Steven King’s Dr. Sleep
I didn’t bother watching the film in the movie theatre. The initial Ender’s Game trailer had seemed to confirm my fears—that Orci & Kurtzman, as they’d done with “Star Trek”, had transformed yet another rich sci-fi property into a flashy explody action movie. I did like idea of the filmmakers throwing Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley into the mix, and Asa Butterfield, cast as Ender Wiggin himself, seemed a decent enough choice; but there were plenty of other elements, evident in the trailer, that seemed suspect. I wasn’t digging the aesthetics of the all-important “Battle School” space station. Nor was I lovin’ all those Star Wars-like formations of star ships and fighter jets.
The book never quite showed actual space battles at all, and seeing all those shiny starships in the trailer only reinforced my concerns that the filmmakers had padded this thing with all the kinds of poop you’d expect in such a big budget franchise-germinating movie. And what’s more, I figured all this theoretical eye candy would obviously come at the cost of an adequately nuanced character arc for the titular character. So yeah, I skipped seeing this thing in the theatre. Which wasn’t even hard.
Here I am many months later. I’ve finally rented the thing on Netflix, watched it, and it’s time for my Ender’s Game review. By the way, I’d like to take this moment to mention how fun it is to intentionally miss big budget movies and then, after you pretty much forgot about them entirely, to notice that they’re suddenly available on Netflix.
You get this feeling like you’re a overly sheltered kid who can finally watch that R-rated movie your parents rented because they left the house to go shopping. You’re like: I get to freaking watch this? Right now?!? It’s a great feeling. And, because I don’t go to the movies so much these days, I get to experience this feeling quite often.
Okay, let’s try this again. I finally rented the thing on Netflix, watched it, and it’s time for my Ender’s Game review. And, as was the case with my recent review of Vin Diesel’s Riddick, it turns out that my expectations were simply too low for the Ender’s Game movie to reach. It was like my expectations were way down there in the Mariano Trench, and Ender’s Game couldn’t safely get there without a certified James Cameron submersible, which, in the case of this metaphor, wasn’t available.
This is all just my way of saying the Ender’s Game film wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. In fact, I’d say it’s perhaps the most competent “sci-fi” movie Dumb and Dumber have yet attached their names to. This is absolutely because, as I’ve already said, Orson Scott Card had already done all the heavy lifting by, er, ya know, writing the original Ender’s Game novel.
Orci and Kurtzman would have had to go out of their way to screw the pooch, and I guess they just weren’t feelin’ frisky on this one. And credit where credit’s due: Gavin Hood, who directed the film and co-wrote the actual screenplay, could have definitely done a much worse job. Though he failed to bring anything unexpected to the telling, he managed to keep the ship on an even keel.
Read my review of Vin Diesel’s “Riddick”
“Ender’s Game”—the book and the movie—is set in a sort of paranoid future where Earth has barely won a war with an insectoid alien race called the Formics, also known as the “buggers.” Anticipating yet another war with these pesky Buggers, Earth’s military has taken to scouring the world for gifted young children and then, should those children possess just the right personal attributes, training those children to basically be Napoleon in Space. Hopefully the “International Fleet” can find an appropriate mega-general before the evil Formics return. Training takes place in a space station over Earth known as “Battle School,” where the pre-pubescent candidates must not only master a kind of zero-gravity laser tag, they must also comport themselves gracefully with regard to their jealous peers.
Ender Wiggin is the most promising recruit in a long time, and the desperate school marm Colonel Graff has to be sure Ender is all he’s cracked up to be. Not only does Graff stack the deck against Ender laser-tag-wise, he also intentionally instigates potentially dangerous, unsupervised conflict between Ender and his slightly older peers. Graff needs to know how Ender react in a real life or death situation. His feeling is: if we choose the wrong Space Napoleon, the aliens will beat us and kill every human who’s ever lived, so to hell with ethics and morals and all that junk. This evil-teacher dynamic creates a lasting tension throughout the story.
Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game movie keeps to the essential beats of the original story, and I’d say the writers did a good job selectively editing out certain background elements of the original novel (there’s a whole plot line in the novel which deals with Ender’s siblings back on Earth, which would have been distracting and visual non-stimulating if crammed into this movie) Mind you, this is not to say I thought this film was anything better than average.
Because it wasn’t. The translation from book to screen couldn’t have felt more “safe.” Nothing original here, nothing surprising. The way the “Battle School” space station looked, for instance. Exactly what you’d expect in an similarly budged sci-fi blockbuster: just a whole bunch of blue-tinted metallic hallways and clanky echoey foot stomps and the like. Lazily rendered twirling CGI space stations and space ships galore.
The sound design fades from memory, goes in one ear and out the other—no unique George Lucas “motorcycle” sounds for the spaceships or anything. Just typical sound-library kinda stuff. Plus, the way the scenes pan out, the space station seems dangerously devoid of any other crew besides Harrison Ford and his helper, Major Gwen Anderson, played serviceably by Viola Davis. Just seems like it’s them and about a thousand kids who run around and shoot each other with lasers all day. I mean damn, that’s a hell of a teacher-student ratio they got going on there in battle school. No wonder Colonel Graff is such a grump!
Any success here is attributable to the casting. I do declare that Asa Butterfield was quite effective as Ender Wiggin, once you get over the fact that all the children in the movie are quite a bit older than those depicted in the book. I thought Butterfield was great in Martin Scorcese’s computer-game-looking film Hugo; the kid has acting chops. He should have been Anakin Skywalker, for instance.
Anyway, condensing a 300 page novel into an hour and a half requires the sacrifice of plenty of character-defining sequences, and I feel Butterfield managed to help spackle in the gaps with just the right, and required, nuanced intensity. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Asa Butterfield carried the movie in the same way his character carried the hopes and dreams of the human race. I guess I’d say that. Sai Butterfield, you may be but a baby Space Caesar, but this movie’s life was in your hands and you rose to the challenge. As for Harrison Grump, I think he was a fine choice for Colonel Graff, it turns out. His grumpiness really helped sell his overall heartless and desperate actions.
Then there’s Ben Kingsley. In the film’s single splurge of originality, Kingsley plays elder war hero Mazer Rackham with an absurd, unwieldy accent. He does this whilst sporting strange Mike Tyson tribal tattoos from head to toe. I could be wrong—it’s been a while since I read the original Ender’s Game—but I’m pretty sure the book did not indicate “crazily tattooed and weird-speaking” during the paragraph where Card initially describes Mazer Rackham.
Again, the decision to weirdify Mazer Rackham is this film’s single instance of taking artistic license with the book. Don’t get me wrong. I can totally deal with a tattooed, weird-talking Ben Kingsley. But his presence somehow threw the film a bit out of balance for me. I wondered, Why did the screenwriters get all creative with that one character while going “safe” with pretty much everybody else? I had no sooner postulated the question than did the obvious answer pop into my head. They had to weirdly Mazer Rackham, because who was going to buy a regular old Ben Kingsly as some legendary, larger-than-life war hero. But then second question popped into my head, and for this question no answer has yet materialized, or ever will: Why cast Ben Kingley in the first place?
Ultimately, is Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game film a failure by way of its unapologetic mediocrity? Well, that depends on where they go from here. If this film is a one-and-done, then yes, this film is a stinker. There is much more material to explore in the Ender’s Game universe. It would be a crime if this film’s failure to elevate the material dooms the future of this would-be franchise.
I haven’t yet read all of the books, but I’ve recently read the book Ender’s Shadow, which takes places during the events of the first book, fleshing those events out—quite inventively, I might add—through the eyes of another future Napoleon (the character “Bean”, who appeared in Ender’s Game, but in a lesser capacity). It was a damn good sci-fi book. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve experienced a more satisfying sequel to anything, considering how so many sequels—books and movies—make the mistake of sacrificing what we loved about the original by trying too hard to raise the stakes. Aka: let’s have three villains this time!)
The coke-snorting man-children who run big-budget hollywood would never do a movie based on Ender’s Shadow, I know that, but my point is that the Ender’s Game universe is a vibrant, exciting place. It bears more exploration. Hopefully, the game’s not over yet.
But never mind what I thought. What did you think of Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game,” dear Reader?