Written by Matt Haviland
Remember when Uncle Rico (in Napoleon Dynamite) said he could throw a football over them mountains? Nobody would have blamed him for missing. That’s what happened with Ender’s Game. The book packs a dozen childhoods ruined through years of military training into three hundred pages. And if it makes one thing absolutely clear, it’s that Ender Wiggin is a genius. He struggles through twenty years of soul crushing labor and humiliation to prove that he’s a ruthless rock star who will map out your weaknesses in seconds before destroying you and then weeping over your grave. But director Gavin Hood’s screenplay makes Ender a preteen whom Harrison Ford has to defend while shuttling him past every test that might have proven the military mettle in his favorite student. Asa Butterfield’s Ender Wiggin has his entire career handed to him. “There is greatness in him!” shouts Ford to all who will listen. Really, dude? Where?
The Ender of the film (Asa Butterfield) starts life as a middle school chump from the future. He defeats a classmate at video games and beats him to the ground when the boy proves a sore loser. Ender does not allow for open-ended conflict (remember that). This and his apparent genius are attractive qualities to Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis). They take Ender to a battle school orbiting Earth, with promises of one day leading us to victory against extraterrestrial insectoids called Formics. At his new school, classmates wage war in zero gravity to prove their instincts and leadership skills. Will Ender advance to next stage of competition? Will a brutal boy genius save the world?
Let’s start with the good: see this film. First up, audiences are dropped into fluffy clouds at magic hour for the most gorgeous dogfight ever filmed (“Merely the exposition, folks”). Then they are propelled through scene after scene of gleaming surfaces and brilliant music into space. With over $110 million pumped into it, Ender’s Game is the special effects blockbuster of November. When the doors to the battle room slide open… Think football fields of open space in all directions surrounded by clear glass, metal frames, glowing boxes. Now imagine dozens of teens camouflaged in plain view (because there’s so much space!) charging their laser guns–and you’re throttling in zero gravity through the middle blasting everyone in sight. Ender’s Game puts you right there. The actors went to Space Camp to train for these sequences. Seeing Ender’s Game in a theater feels like going to Space Camp.
Awesome is the word. The dictionary sense. Supernovas. Black holes. Here’s an experience we could not have with 3D glasses. We’re not straining to see the distance between blue aliens in the foreground and trees in the background (“There’s the depth… Right there…”). We’re holding our seats because we feel like we might float away. Add to this the thrill of your average boot camp flick. Drop and give me twenty (in space). Choreograph dazzling military attack patterns (in space). Run through the hallways chanting: “Salamander! Salamander!” (in space). When Ender asks his captain, Bonzo Madrid (the deliciously sniveling Moises Arias) for a private conversation, they walk into a scary space hallway that feels like Ridley Scott’s Alien. Just for a second. Why not? Except sometimes Harrison Ford walks in and groans. He manufactures movie magic with his presence. Harrison Ford is made of movie magic. Blasting off to another location (in space), Ender asks where they’re going: “Much further,” he breathes.
But remember, Uncle Rico’s throwing this thing over a mountain. As an adaptation, Ender’s Game is a disappointment. The book is an meditation on childhood’s annihilation in the face of unforgiving social demands and intolerance. The adaptation, however, feels like J. J. Abrams Star Trek reboots. There are barrels of fun to be consumed. Gleaming space helmets to be worn. You will feel like you’re watching from the perspective of somebody on a vision quest at times. There’s just this surreal sense of cosmic peace. The climax is epic like you’ve never known. There erupts applause everywhere (on-screen; in-theater; waiting between your hands, though they are not clapping). But as soon as you read the book, everything feels like Cliff Notes mashed together. Because this is Ender’s Game: The Ride. And you groan and say, “Of course: the book has been called unfilmable for a reason.” Let’s start with actors.
There’s a metatextual link between what Ender struggles through and what the actor playing Ender struggles through. The book puts Ender Wiggin through grueling tests of willpower, intelligence, and moral compromise so readers know two things for sure: 1) Ender is the greatest military genius in all possible universes; 2) Government-endorsed competition can rip the humanity out of someone and make them, at best, a joyless machine–at worst, a dangerous psychopath. For the film, this means that Ender’s child actor must exude deepest despair and coldest intellect but aching compassion. The actor must be a prodigy himself to play the role correctly. Asa Butterfield–The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Hugo–has been an able enough lead in dramatic pictures, but his despair feels painted on. We get the sense that this a normal kid doing extraordinary things. He’s competent but never convincing. Someone playing Ender needs to be flesh and blood–or else he just isn’t Ender Wiggin. As soon as we see a kid trying to look melancholy for the audience (rather than trying to break through blackest darkness while fulfilling his duties), the illusion is broken. We just say, “Smile.” You can’t tell Ender Wiggin, “Smile.”
The script works hard for PG-13. Key scenes where Ender brutalizes peers are castrated. Six-year-old Ender kicking a bully’s face in? Gavin Hood’s pre-teen Ender stops before knocking him out. Another fight scene renders his traumatic violence a freak accident. Because director and screenwriter Gavin Hood strips Ender Wiggin of his agency in that pivotal scene, the aftermath is less believable, and his classic quote about how total destruction yields total intimacy (shown in a title card at the beginning of the movie) hits with little-to-no impact: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” Not when you barely touched him. Another character finishes that sentence for him, when Ender says it–as if Ender were speaking in cliches instead of revealing a heartbreaking truth about warped compassion. Asa Butterfield would have to be a brilliant actor (or a horribly depressed fifteen-year-old) to speak those lines with conviction, anyway. But the film remains so safe that the darkness of its source material leaves a plot hole where Ender’s frown is. Using the video game he plays as an symbolic example, the film turns his avatar into a cute mouse, and stops well before allowing him to slay digital children to advance.
Ender is often isolated in the book. In the movie, he is surrounded by loving friends, and reaches them through face chat when Graff gives him a time out. The original Ender struggles for everything he has, and advances from army to army based on skill and determination. The film’s Ender is thrown from one crew to another because Graff is already convinced that he’s ready. The most telling comparison is that novel’s Ender goes through grueling battle school showdowns for months and years. In the film, Ender participates in less than five (I’ll remain silent on the difference). Far from genius, Gavin Hood’s boy wonder seems decently intelligent. The screenplay moves him along on rails, as does his video game.
With the whiplash-inducing plot speed, however, I realized something. Ender’s Game is not unfilmable because everything takes place in Ender Wiggin’s head (as Orson Scott Card has stated). It’s because there’s so much going on. So much happens in the film, and it’s only about four percent of the novel! Here I am complaining about leaving stuff out (“Do you want a fifty-hour film?”). The filmable film would be two films and it would be rated R. Apparently some screenplay attempts were R-rated. There were many of all kinds that all perished. Thus, it’s wonderful that this film exists. And my criticisms are beside the point. Just as I would give Abrams’s Star Trek positive ratings, I will heartily recommend Ender’s Game, especially for those who haven’t read the book. The book is a book’s book, and a great one. How to adapt that? Simple. Make it a film’s film. Orson Scott Card went 25 years before accepting a screenplay for his unfilmable novel. The proper impossible script. But Card wasn’t waiting for perfect literature. He waited for his story to congeal into something tangible. A football. And subconsciously, he waited for enough special effects to knock that football over them mountains and out of the dang galaxy.
And you know what? Pay Uncle Rico about $110 million, because this sucker flies.
P.S. While all due fingers remain wagging toward Orson Scott Card for his controversial statements, the Ender’s Game film and its source material support compassion and acceptance for all existence. Moreover, the film’s creators have maintained their distance from Card’s personal views thereof.