Reel Review | Ender’s Game

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“Ender’s Game,” the long-in-development adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s popular book (and series) has finally made its way to the big screen as one of the most expensive independent films ever made. The story deals with a future society in which the International Military recruits children to seek out a perfect leader who can protect earth from an alien attack. The plot is essentially similar to the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” as Ender progresses from one level of training to another while remaining isolated from those around him. It’s a great concept and raises a lot of thematic ideas that, unfortunately, feel glossed over in the film. Like most adaptations, something is lost in the translation from page to screen, but with “Ender’s Game”  pacing is expedited to the point where thought-provoking thematic ideas are introduced and forgotten in the matter of minutes. As a viewer, I felt it difficult to connect with anything because the film blazed through scene after scene, exposition limited to what was necessary to reach the conclusion. This brings up another issue with not only the film, but the book as well: it’s really hard to explain without entering spoiler territory, but initially the story doesn’t seem to possess a three act structure. Certain things happen at the end that alter that perspective, but while watching it you almost feel cheated because it doesn’t make a natural progression towards its finale. It’s probably fair to dock the film for having a unique structure that was so central to the story, but audiences who have not read the book may leave the theater with a, “What just happened?” look on their faces.

Asa Butterfield does an excellent job as Ender, although he is much older than the character from the book. Throughout the film he must exhibit a controlled ruthlessness which highlights his brilliance, but the apex of his performance is when he’s given the chance to show a spark of humanity. It was in these moments that I truly felt a bond with the character. It’s nice to see Harrison Ford back in a sci-fi film — he seems natural in the genre. Unfortunately, he’s literally playing the same type of character that he’s nailed down to perfection over the past decade or so. It would be nice to see him stretch his comfort zone a little and try a character with a greater dimensionality. Rating: 16 / 25

From a visual perspective the film works really well. For most of the film, director Gavin Hood eliminates earth tones such as greens and browns and instead utilizes metallic colors (such as silver) to accentuate the cold, emotionless military machine as they try and craft Ender into the perfect military leader. Hood also does an excellent job shooting the zero gravity scenes of the Battle Room; he’s able to maintain a sense of geography even while working in 3-dimensional space. Sadly it doesn’t measure up to what was seen in the film “Gravity,” (but then again, what would?. That’s like racing a Porsche against a Yugo). For the most part the CGI looks good, but I must admit that certain aspects — such as the final test — made me think of the 1984 cult classic “The Last Starfighter.” It’s not that it’s bad, it just feels a little too much like a game. The thing that surprised me the most was something that the film was missing from a visual aspect. Even though he’s gone on record stating that he had zero intention of making “Ender’s Game” in 3D, Hood seemed to shoot the film thinking that a conversion was a probability. It’s a shame too, because he framed objects perfectly to create a sense of depth that would have worked so well for the film. Rating: 19 / 25

With “Ender’s Game” being in the sci-fi genre it should come as no surprise to hear that the sound design was mostly well done. Sound separation worked well, creating a measure of depth that matched perfectly with the visuals. Unfortunately, sometimes the mix was a little off; I struggled to hear what certain characters were saying during some of the action scenes. Things get better when it comes to the music. Personally, I feel composer Steve Jablonsky is one of the most underrated composers working today. Here, he’s able to capture the military motifs he used so well for his score to the “Gears of War 2” video game, making everything seem epic in nature. The score ranges from bombastic at one point to functioning as part of the sound design in another, all while never going over the top. It excels in the lighter moments, exemplifying a level of humanity in Ender that was missing from the story. If the score didn’t contain these lighter orchestral themes, the film would have crumbled under the weight of its own thematic structure. Rating: 21 / 25

Even with pacing issues and the film’s inability to fully develop some key themes, I enjoyed watching “Ender’s Game.”  It’s a much darker film than trailers indicate, and it sticks to a structure that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to leaving the audience on a high note. But deep down inside, I feel the film missed the mark by a smidge. If “Ender’s Game” had been more nimbly adapted with a much longer running time so as to fully develop the major themes from the book, we would be discussing the next sci-fi classic of our generation. Instead we were given an entertaining film that will be lost in the annals of time. Rating: 21 / 25

Overall Rating: 77 / 100

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Dave Ziemer has been reviewing movies for over ten years. He is the founder and was the Program Director of SiriusXM Radio's Cinemagic channel.