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Movies Sci-Fi

Movie Review: Ender's Game 732

Posted by Soulskill
from the enemy's-gate-is-down dept.
Ender's Game is the quintessential classic military sci-fi book. It ranks near the top of virtually every list of good sci-fi novels. When Hollywood decided to finally go forward with a movie adaptation, the initial reaction from most fans was one of skepticism. (After all, we saw what they did to I, Robot.) But there was reason to hope, as well, because Ender's Game is more action-friendly than many sci-fi stories, and the filmmakers had a big budget with which to make it. The movie was finally released last week; read on for our review. In short: the film tries too hard to straddle the line between assuming viewers are familiar with the details and bringing new viewers up to speed. The cuts to the story were both too much and not enough. It left us with only brief glimpses at too many characters, and introduced themes without fleshing them out enough to be interesting.
tester data

Note: in the lead-up to this film's release, a boycott was organized in response to Orson Scott Card's efforts as an anti-gay-marriage activist. If you find your desire to see one of your favorite stories clashing with a desire not to support Card's political views, an organization called the Equality Initiative has offered an alternative. They suggest going to see the movie, if you want, and then simply donating the ticket price to any of several related charities.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way: they cut a lot from the novel. Really, quite a lot. As a book, Ender's Game is not terribly long, and it's a very quick read. That makes it sound ideal for a movie interpretation at first blush. But part of the reason it's such a quick read is that it's dense with plot, character development, and internal narratives. The movie is dense as well, but mostly with events. What makes the book great is not so much what the characters do, but why they do it and how. So while the movie conveys the majority of what happened in the book, it fails to convey the reasons behind the facts. I don't know that they could have done any better within a two-hour time limit, but it leaves us with a question: is this film for people who have read the book, or for people who haven't?

Since the book has been out since 1985, I'm going to assume most of you are familiar with the story. I won't reveal the major plot twists, but minor and intermediate spoilers may follow. If you aren't familiar with it, then here's the bottom line: go read the book! It's good.

Right from the beginning we see how deep the cuts go. Central to Ender's time at home is the whirlwind of conflicting emotions running through him about his monitor, his family, and his status as a Third. The film rushes through these, hitting each only briefly enough to show the viewer that there exists something deeper. Ender mentions being a Third, but doesn't explain what a Third is, or why it's a point of shame and embarrassment. They introduce Peter, but fail to show that their relationship is more complex than your typical sibling rivalry. In the book, Peter is brilliant, sadistic, intuitive, and a hell of an actor when adults are around. In the movie, he's just a jerk for a few seconds before Ender rockets off toward the plot.

Even Ender's early fight with Stilson loses much of its impact. In the book, it really isn't much of a fight; Ender immediately has Stilson at his mercy. The point of the scene was to show Ender's deliberate use of brutality and intimidation to secure safety from the larger group of enemies. He's reluctant, but not hesitant. In the movie, this is distilled down to a command for Stilson to "stay down" before the fight has concluded and a shaky warning to the others.

So, even just 10 minutes into the film, we see the film is not taking the time to illustrate these characters to a new audience. That trend continues: most of the minor characters are cardboard cutouts of their literary counterparts. Bean is somehow in the same initial launch group as Ender, and simply serves as an ally. Peter and Valentine just serve as occasional spurs for Ender's development. (Yes, that means the entire secondary plot was scrapped. I'm not too sad about that; there's no way they could have given it enough time to do it justice. And it was always the least believable thing, for me, in a novel about space battles and insectoid aliens.) Alai makes mention of peace, but he doesn't have a role as a peacemaker. The contrast between his connection with Ender and the constant violence surrounding them is lost. Petra has more interaction with Ender than most, but it has some bizarre romantic overtones.

Well, then, what about the scenery? If the movie is for fans of the book, it should at least be awesome to see expensive CGI of the scenes we imagined in our heads when reading it, right? And it is.. sometimes. The space battle sequences are impressive, and seeing the students fly around in zero-g was neat. But it was also jarring, at times. Take the Battleroom at the school, for example. In my head, it was an approximation of space, with a dark background interrupted only by the simple "stars" and the gates. In the movie, there's an awful lot going on, visually. The walls are windows dominated by a view of Earth. Everything's polished and shiny. The light pistols shoot bright, Star-Wars-like laser bolts that flash dramatically when they hit something. All the ships in the battlefleet look fancy and brand new, instead of hastily constructed and out of date. Ender's interface in command school is far more graphical and pretty than is sensible. It's cool to see, and I suspect viewers who are unfamiliar with the book won't think twice about it. But it's clear that this interpretation is not straining to be as faithful to the book as possible, which is mildly disappointing.

The movie's acting was decent. There won't be any Oscar nominations, but they didn't have a whole lot to work with. As I mentioned earlier, most characters had their subtleties stripped away. Asa Butterfield does a respectable job with Ender, using glances and body language to supplement some of the situations where the story was simplified from an internal narrative. The casting director definitely made the right decision going with kids in their early teens rather than the much-younger ages from the book. Harrison Ford played Graff well enough, but it'd be more accurate to say he played Harrison Ford. If you tend to like his characters, you'll enjoy the role. If not, you might like Viola Davis, who played a surprisingly good Major Anderson. Those two characters were tweaked a bit in order to separate out their conflicting emotions about training Ender, and they pull it off. Ben Kingsley does a fine job in his abbreviated role as Ender's adversarial mentor.

A few other random notes:

  • They gave up the biggest plot twist ahead of time; there were at least two obvious references to what was going to happen. Ender is kept in the dark, but the audience is not, which is too bad for new viewers.
  • The fantasy game was represented pretty well. Like most other plot elements, it was stripped down to its essentials, but I was surprised by how well they integrated it into the story. I was expecting it to be cut altogether.
  • Due to the trimming and simplifying of the story, the movie's dialogue was largely original. It mostly paraphrased the book. However, they occasionally threw in direct quotes from some of the more stylized lines. It happened infrequently enough that it broke immersion.

It's inevitable that a successful book won't fit within the confines of a movie script. We knew this going in. Nevertheless, some adaptations have succeeded by being as faithful as possible to the ideas behind the book. Ender's Game doesn't manage this. Other adaptations have been successful by reimagining the work for a new medium, thus drawing in new fans. Ender's Game doesn't quite manage this, either. It straddles the line, and in doing so, leaves us with a sequence of events that seems entirely arbitrary, when it should instead seem inevitable. If you're thrilled about the possibility of seeing expensive CGI for one of your favorite stories, go see it. Otherwise, give it a pass.

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Movie Review: Ender's Game

Comments Filter:
  • by fightinfilipino (1449273) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @03:56PM (#45348211) Homepage

    it's not about separating art from the creator, it's about not giving money or publicity to someone who still actively fights against equality. Card was on the board of the National Organization for Marriage and is still (afaik) a member.

    quite bluntly, i don't want to give him any of my money, because that money is being used to deny human rights to millions of people merely because they love someone of the same gender.

  • by intermodal (534361) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @03:59PM (#45348261) Homepage Journal

    Why does hate for others have to enter into it?

    Christ taught that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, but also told sinners to stop doing so. As one who professes to be a Christian, Card has every right to regard sins as sins without hating anyone over it.

  • Some disgreement (Score:4, Informative)

    by mcmonkey (96054) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @04:04PM (#45348325) Homepage

    go read the book! It's good.

    If you're a teenager (or younger), yes, give it a read. If you're an adult, meh. There are worse ways to pass a rainy afternoon, but it's not a must read. It's young-adult fiction that does not hold up well for adults.

    As for the movie, this is rare movie I thought could be longer. You get one hit of every major plot point--one fight with the bully in the first school, one interaction with Peter, one training battle with each team, etc.

    What gets lost is why Ender thinks the way he does. In the movie, he's just born this tactical prodigy. In the book, he's a gifted kid, but we get to see how he learns to use those gifts.

    And I didn't think the give-away for the final twist was that bad. Over all, I left not feeling angry for the money spent.

  • Re:Orson Scott Card (Score:3, Informative)

    by occasional_dabbler (1735162) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @04:12PM (#45348415)
    This. Plus I never rated the whole Ender trilogy. I trudged through it but found it shallow, unimaginative and dull. (The Great Enemy are called "Buggers" - so they destroy your planet and then they sodomise you?) Where are the movies of books by Banks or Niven, or even the more modern Reynolds and Asher. Action and plot aplenty amongst any of those and (apart from Niven, alas) proper character devlopment too. OSC is grade C at best, then you hear he's got some nasty politics and for me too it's a no f... way am I going to waste my life to put a cent in this man's pocket.
  • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @04:13PM (#45348429)
    What do you mean there was a sequel to The Matrix? Perhaps you are confused. [xkcd.com]
  • Re:Orson Scott Card (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @04:17PM (#45348469)

    Card owns 50% of Taleswapper, the production copy. He's getting a big taste of the box office, even though the studio isn't writing checks payable to his name.

  • FTFY (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dr. Manhattan (29720) <sorceror171 AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @04:42PM (#45348745) Homepage
    Famous entertainer joins the Board of Directors for one of the most prominent political lobbying groups [boxturtlebulletin.com] some people disagree with, more news at 11.
  • Re:overrated, anyway (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @04:44PM (#45348787)

    Card's fiction was average at the time, but because the bar is so low now, average back then is excellent now.

    Quite the contrary, actually.

    The original "Enders Game" novelette was nominated for that year's (1978) Hugo and came in at #9 on the Locus Poll. The novel version (1986) won the Hugo, the Nebula, the SF Chronicle award, and placed 2nd in the Locus Poll. That's quite a bit above average. .

    The 1987 sequel, Speaker for the Dead, won the Hugo, the Nebula, the SF Chronicle award, and 1st place in the Locus Poll. That was the first time an author had taken the Hugo in back-to-back years for best novel especially where the 2nd was a sequel.

    Although I haven't read either in over 20 years, I think Speaker holds up better than Ender's Game in no little part because the basic plot of Game got ripped off a lot in the interval (The Last Starfighter, anyone? Which actually appeared before the novelization of Ender's Game but well after the original novelette. There were also a whole host of other "it was just a game/it wasn't just a game" stories).

  • by chill (34294) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @04:45PM (#45348795) Journal

    If you want the quintessential classic military sci-fi book, read Starship Troopers.

    But DON'T watch the movie. Nothing but a T&A gore fest that had little to nothing to do with the book, other than insects waging space war.

  • by GonzoPhysicist (1231558) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @05:32PM (#45349451)
    But the books aren't even the original story, the radio program was. That's one of the best things about H2G2, in each of it's incarnations it starts the same way but the plot eventually diverges.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @05:45PM (#45349627)

    Starship Troopers the movie is a parody of WWII propaganda films. The plastic characters and ultra-violence is Verhoeven making fun of exactly what you loathe. Watch the movie again with the director & writer's (same team as RoboCop) commentary for a better understanding. It really is a brilliant movie, though you're right about it having little to do with the book.

  • Re:Orson Scott Card (Score:4, Informative)

    by c++0xFF (1758032) on Wednesday November 06, 2013 @05:50PM (#45349709)

    Ender's Game was originally a short story. Maybe they should have based the movie on that instead of the book?

  • by Jeremi (14640) on Thursday November 07, 2013 @12:31AM (#45353065) Homepage

    That's an interesting point, however what does Ender's Game have to do with homosexuality?

    In Ender's Game, the human race is in acute danger of being destroyed by "buggers". Just sayin'....

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