Ender’s Game is a movie I went into wanting to love. I first read the book back in High School, and it has been high on the list of books I recommend to others ever since. It’s a book with engaging characters, poignant social commentary, and well-thought out tactical action. It’s written for adults, uses gritty violence to powerful effect, and pulls you in like only the best books can. So I walked into the theater with high hopes and deep fears. Thankfully, the movie mostly succeeds, and though it wasn’t everything I had hoped for, I enjoyed Ender’s Game thoroughly.
The Good: Asa Butterfield delivers a great performance, it keeps you entertained throughout, strong and intriguing ideas drive the narrative
The Bad: Nothing truly unique to set it apart, feels like it skips over some important moments, would have benefitted from a larger budget, lacks genuine-feeling character development
The best and brightest of Earth’s children are hand selected to attend an orbiting battle school. There, they learn tactics and leadership skills to fight in a war against an alien race that nearly wiped out mankind during their first attack. A twelve-year-old genius, Ender, is picked as humanity’s best hope for survival against the aliens, but he has to complete a grueling training first, win the respect of his teammates, and ultimately fight a battle that he may not even believe in.
The Story & Script
Before I say anything else, I want to say that Ender’s Game is solid. It keeps the heart of the book intact and the movie as a whole is good and entertaining. It’s the kind of movie you go to the theater to enjoy, but you don’t expect it to blow you away. It doesn’t have any gaping plot holes, and it succeeds where it needs to succeed. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t use every piece it presents to its fullest potential.
My biggest complaint about Ender’s Game is that the movie feels rushed. Rather than taking the extra time to truly delve into Ender’s psyche and show the audience his brilliance, Gavin Hood (the director and script writer) elected to have characters quickly tell you what you need to know and then move on. This keeps the movie moving along at a good pace, but I couldn’t help but feel that opportunities for true emotional engagement had been missed. Instead of seeing Ender struggling to fit in at battle school and ultimately earn the respect of his teammates, we get a few scenes showing the difficulty, one battle in which he is “brilliant”, and then suddenly everyone is on team Ender. It works well enough, but it takes away any sense of true fear or concern for Ender that the movie may have had and leaves the battle school feeling like a fun place to be rather than what should essentially be a military boot camp on steroids.
Other than that, the story is good. All of the major ideas in the book have been included, and it’s the ideas that really drive this movie along. Ender’s Game asks some big and difficult questions, and the story itself is intriguing enough to entertain even with shallow emotional involvement. Engaging concepts and well-placed action scenes keep things interesting, so while Ender’s character may not grow or change much throughout the film, Ender’s Game never feels slow or uninteresting.
Asa Butterfield is awesome in Ender’s Game. His expressions and delivery help make up for much of the emotional depth that the script is lacking, and it’s his performance that makes Ender an engaging hero despite his lack of growth throughout the film. It’s almost impossible not to root for him, and when things get tough, Butterfield’s performance never feels short of realistic. For a young actor, he’s truly impressive here and much of what keeps the audience invested in the movie comes straight from the subtleties of his performance. With its scripting missteps, I don’t think this movie would have worked half as well without him.
Harrison Ford, on the other hand, doesn’t show much range at all. While his character works, he is unchanging the entire movie, and I can’t help but wonder why they needed such a big name actor for this kind of role. Similarly, Kingsley is good, but underused. From a budgetary standpoint, I wish they had used the funds they threw at these two actors to add more scenes of Ender’s military exploits and of his teammates coming to understand and respect him.
I also had difficulty believing many of the child actors in the roles they were in. For kids that were supposed to be tough, cruel, and unforgiving, most of these kids had a kindly look to how they held themselves and their expressions weren’t convincing of true enmity. I largely blame the script for this since they weren’t given a lot of opportunities to develop or truly get into character, but coupled with a few oddly chosen adults, it took any sense of danger I had in the battle school right out of the movie.
So on the acting side of things, watch this movie for Asa Butterfield. He makes it all worth it and draws the audience into the deeper elements of the story. Everyone else is just there to make him look good.
The Cinematography & Directing
I can’t say I have any real complaints in the cinematography or directing department, and Ender’s Game is by far Gavin Hood’s best work to date. The movie is entertaining, and at the end of the day, that’s why most people watch movies. That said, Ender’s Game could have benefitted immensely from a more confident hand behind the reins. Hood plays it safe here and gives us a decent action movie, but one that really doesn’t push the bounds in any way. There’s an edginess to the Ender’s Game book that has been lost on the movie, and I can’t help but wonder how cool Ender’s Game could have been if Hood had been willing to take a few more risks or give the movie a grittier visual flair.
The special effects are good, and the music is memorable. The acting is passable. Some of the younger actors really show you what they can do but the older ones, which we've come to expect a lot from, are not as memorable.
Overall, enough of the themes of the book make it through to the surface in the film, so in that regard it is successful. But it isn't nearly as good as it could have been if the film makers wanted to take a few risks and not just entertain your eyes.