Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Ender's Game

Film #475

THE PLOT

Young Ender Wiggin is recruited by the International Military to lead the fight against the Formics, a genocidal alien race which nearly annihilated the human race in a previous invasion.

Year 3, Film #25

THE GOOD: By far, the thing that surprised me the most about Ender’s Game was the film’s ability to show the strategy and thinking that goes through Ender Wiggin’s (Asa Butterfield) mind. The book (which I’ve actually read, surprise!) goes to great lengths to describe the setup of the Battle Room — a zero-gravity arena where trainees play war-games — among other places and the thought processes that go on in Wiggin’s mind. We not only get to see what’s happening, but why it’s happening as well, and the film does a tremendous job at portraying that.

Ender’s Game is a film that is all about strategy and thinking like the enemy. The film even opens with a quote from Wiggin saying, “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.” While there are plenty of areas that the film fails to address adequately, getting the most important one correct goes a long way. Getting a sense of the strategy and the thinking that goes on fills in some of those gaps and brings us to a deeper level that the rest of the film forgoes.

Much of the film seems to want to highlight their visual effects and CGI work, which while impressive, goes a bit over-the-top more than once. A lot of it is superficial and makes it seem like it wants to achieve what it means to be a “Transformers-blockbuster”. We get those big action scenes and large explosions, however, Ender’s Game has a deeper level to it. It has elements of ethical dilemmas, the difference between right and wrong, when that distinction is blurred, how far are people willing to go? These are all crucial in the book and are present in the film too, but obstructed by all the eye-candy. Seeing the strategy and the thinking of Ender is not only beneficial by itself, but it’s also in these moments that we get a glimpse of greatness that the film otherwise masks.

THE BAD: Any fans of the book will notice many differences with the film, the biggest of which being the elimination of Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine Wiggin’s (Abigail Breslin) entire subplot about a growing political movement back on Earth that causes an uprising against the current government. While these absences are noticeable, my complaints about the film adaptation aren’t about differences from the novel. In fact, I expected and assumed they would drop the Peter/Valentine story from the film since it seems so out of place even in the book.

My biggest complaint about the film is about the lack of background the film provides, or rather, an assumed level of knowledge that’s never explained. Ender’s Game does cover much of the background that’s provided in the novel — an alien race called the Formics (aka Buggers — I have no explanation for why the film doesn’t even mention this nickname) invades Earth and is almost successful in wiping out humankind before a lone pilot, Mazer Rackham, singlehandedly destroys the enemy fleet. Both the book and film pick up after that in a time where children are trained to be the next commanders in preparation for a preemptive attack.

This is all explained (in sometimes excruciating exposition) but you’re still left with a sense that something is missing. For example, when Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) are discussing Ender’s progress through Battle School, every time it seems like they know something we don’t. Some piece of context that would help ground the film or some piece of knowledge that answers a question that we don’t really ask, but is still in the back of our minds anyway. Small things like what exactly are these teams in Battle School, what’s the point of their simulations, how does the zero-gravity arena work?

Part of this may be just lack of time. The film seems to blow through each location (Earth, Battle School, Commander School) without stopping to rest in one for any extended period of time. We are rushed through them in the same way in the book, but at least there we get the benefit of reading a couple paragraphs of description to give us an idea of where we are and what we’re doing. The film takes these minor details (team colors, hierarchy of command, early hatred towards Ender) and shoves them in a corner. As someone who has read the book, this tidbits reminded me of the descriptions and explanations given in the book and allowed me to better understand what was going on. For people who haven’t, I can easily imagine getting lost in the specifics of this world and just paying attention to the visual effects because that’s all you can fully understand.

THE TAKEAWAY: For fans of the novel, Ender’s Game is a reimagining of the story you know and love. It has it’s differences and omissions, but the crux of the story is all there and Ender Wiggin, along with his brilliant mind and cunning strategies, are represented in a way that truly brings the book to life. However, other elements of the film are lacking this high level of detail and attention and can leave you scratching your head, wondering if you missed some crucial piece of information and the characters are all in on something you don’t know. The visual effects, while amazing eye-candy and fun to watch, can be a bit overdone at times and can provide another distraction to the viewer instead of clarifying what’s going on. It’s sort of a tossup between some parts that were perfectly adapted, and others that weren’t.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5