The science fiction genre offers storyteller’s a lot of opportunities beyond the superficially cool concepts, or worlds, that they engage with. They can tell stories about relevant topics through the lens of the fantastical, and this state of “fantasy” gives readers/watchers enough distance to be objective about the the sub-text. We can re-contextualize the scenarios, which can lead to a greater sense of intellectual honesty; something people have a really hard time mustering up the ability to engage with when it comes to current events. Obviously, this isn’t true in all cases, and science fiction stories, but, in my opinion, the one’s that are truly great, truly special, and have staying power, are the works that engage in this type of storytelling. All’s I’m saying is, someone should have told somebody about this.
I had almost no awareness of the novel, Ender’s Game, before news of a film based on it was put into production. I mean, I probably heard about it at some point, being a lover of science fiction, but I guess nothing about it stuck with me. Which is kind of weird, because the concept seems right up my book reading alley. I like things with that use big concepts as a back drop for smaller, more intimate stories, that deal in the moral complexity of life. Although, even after I discovered the existence of the novel, I still never read it, and didn’t know anything more than it’s basic conceit. I kind of totally forgot about it until I saw a trailer for the movie a few months back. Something about it just didn’t interest me. It seemed kind of flat, and looked to play up how “cool” it looked, rather than bother with selling me an interesting story. But marketing being what it is, often trying to be as broad as possible looking towards mass appeal, I wasn’t completely disinterested. I mean, I obviously went to see it, but it was more out of boredom than excitement. So, my expectations, while not completely non-existent, were pretty low.
Considering my tempered expectations, I kind of enjoyed Ender’s Game. I don’t think it is all that great, or even good, really, but I definitely enjoyed it. In fact, there were times that the movie bordered on being actually interesting, but again and again the movie kept getting in it’s own way, not knowing which master it wanted to serve. Is it a fun science fiction movie about an exciting and propulsive plot, or is it a movie about characters and their moral dilemmas in the face of a purported necessary genocide through preemptive war? It’s really confused in this respect, and doesn’t seem to know how to reconcile these different aspects, never finding a comfortable middle ground between the two; often leaning towards just moving it’s plot along, rather than exploring it’s themes.
Not having read the source material, I can’t say this for sure, but it seems like a bad adaptation. Not bad in a “changing the entire story, and only using the the basic concept” kind of way, but in a way that it feels like it’s trying to stuff in as many scenes and characters from the book that it can. The thing is, it never deals with anything that happens in these scenes with any real depth, and only really plays lip service to the consequences of how the scenes play out, because, after all, it has another scene from the book to get to! Or at least that’s how it feels. So, there’s no weight to anything that happens, and the characters never become characters. Sure, we’re predisposed to feel bad for them, because, after all, they’re kids being manipulated into becoming ruthless soldiers, but the movie does almost nothing that would engender empathy for these characters. We barely even get a sense of how events affect them. Even the titular character, Ender, get’s the short end of the stick in this regard. There’s a point in the film where Ender decides to quit because of a tragic accident, but instead of exploring his feelings about being faced with “reality,” the movie closes the door on the situation inside of 10 minutes, and never brings it up again. This traumatic event, that made him want to give up and question the veracity of his commanding officers bares no consequence on anything that happens after. It’s not even mentioned, if memory serves me correct. It never feels like we’re watching an arc of any sort, and all the character interactions seem to be completely dictated by the needs of the plot, rather then who they are, or who they are becoming.
Continuing our discussion of how I assume this was adapted, it’s a good case study on the nature of adaptations, and proves that slavish devotion to source material does not equate to a good film. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of scenes directly lifted from the book, without any real adaptation. The problem with this is, again, that we have no idea how this is effecting the characters on almost any level, unless it it explicitly told to us through dialogue. Movies and books require different things. One being literary, and one being visceral, obviously. By only paying service to the plot, in a pretty straight forward way, the movie never engaged me on any kind of “deeper” level. If they wanted to make a movie more akin to the novel, assuming again, I imagine it would be a much slower paced, and reflective affair. But that’s not the kind of movie they wanted to make. They wanted a easily accessible, adventure movie, and had little to no interest in actually addressing the themes that the novel does, which makes their adaptation process odd, in my opinion. To achieve it’s goals, the film makers really needed to reconfigure this story to suit their purposes. What they ended up with is a film that feels plodding and rushed, and never feels cohesive. I know what they are trying to say, which probably has to do with the fact that the story is a little derivative(Think Starship Troopers, if it didn’t know how to make it’s point.), but the movie never is able to tell me. I’m not talking about it being vague, or obtuse with it’s “message,” I’m saying it’s not really there, and what is there doesn’t really have anything to support it outside of “It is, because we say it is.”
There are a few bright spots in the film. The aesthetic design is nice and interesting. They look like they are actually standing in a three dimensional, practical space(Sets!? Oh, how quaint of you Ender’s Game!). I was impressed by how much of this movie used practical locations, and even when it goes into some heavy CGI territory it all feels appropriately lived in and weighty. They blend it together pretty well, and I was never taken out of the movie from a visual stand point.
I don’t know how the filmmakers achieved this, but it’s the first time, in probably over a decade, that it seemed like Harrison Ford actually gave a shit. It was really refreshing, honestly. I mean, he’s not my favorite actor, but I love the novelty of him. If that makes any sense. He probably comes out the best as far as characterization is concerned, and it has nothing to do with the script, but rather his performance. He brings a real weight to the proceedings, and does some really great understated acting in this flick. If anything, seeing Ford actually care may be reason enough to check this out.
As far as the other actors in the film, they’re serviceable. No one really blew my socks off. Out of the cast of kids, I was looking forward to Hailee Steinfeld the most. She was really great in True Grit, and showed a lot of promise, but, unfortunately, she isn’t given anything really interesting to do here. I mean, that goes for everyone, honestly. They don’t have much to do, and spend most of their time exposition dumping. It shows how important a good script and a director with a clear vision is. The movie is preoccupied with making sure you know the mechanics of the world, so everyone gets the short end of the stick, in terms of building interesting characters.
Having said all that, I still was entertained by this movie. It was definitely disappointing, because of how much of a missed opportunity it is, but it’s completely competent, in a straight forward kind of way. It’s worthy of a rental, or adding to your Netflix queue. I know that after reading this you may find that a recommendation to be odd, but with expectations kept in check, I think you’ll feel the same way as I did about it. Honestly though, I have no idea who this movie is “for.” It seems like there were too many cooks in Ender’s kitchen. If anybody reads this that’s read the novel, let me know if my assumptions about how this was adapted are correct. The movie made me want to check out the book, but I don’t want to bother with it if the movie is a “fair” representation of it.