Sunday, 17 November 2013

Ender's Game Review

Ender's Game is actually a pretty good film. The problem is that it could have been two great films. I've never read Orson Scott Card's novel, so I don't know how long it is, but it's pretty clear that it's too long for a two-hour movie. There's just too much stuff!

Following a devastating war with the alien Formics, humanity has begun training children for military command, based on their inherent unpredictability and outside-the-box thinking. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is one such recruit - a young prodigy with the potential to be the greatest strategist this world has ever known. It's a strong and interesting setup, but it sometimes feels lost in the mad rush to fit everything else in.
We see Ender go from an Earthbound military academy to an orbital Battle School; train, learn, and progress through the ranks from bottom to top; graduate to an interstellar Command School; train, learn, graduate again; and, of course, command an actual war. Every single one of those sections is handled really well, and each has great moments but, inevitably, they all get somewhat short-changed. It feels like it all happens in about a week where it's supposed to be a few months at least; maybe years.
The Battle and Command School sections could, and probably should, have made good films in their own right. Each has its own arc and its own climax, and each does interesting and unexpected things with the characters and world. But, presumably because Card's book is an unproven property and not an inexplicably popular YA series, it's all been forced into one movie.

With this in mind, the film makes absolutely the best choices it can, focusing most of its attention on Battle School. Where Command School basically consists of Ender and his team playing Sins of a Solar Empire against Ben Kingsley (who is great, as always), Battle School sees him competing against rival children to become top dog. Unlike the later simulated battles, the competition here is real and physical, as the kids play war-games in the spectacular Battle Room. This is essentially zero-G laser-tag (or maybe closer to paintball) so it's easy for us to understand both the rules and the stakes. These sequences are exciting and inventive and they're probably the movie's highlight.
The Battle School offers conflict outside these war-games, too, as Ender is made to struggle every step of the way. This is a cruel place, where Harrison Ford's unfeeling Colonel Graff actively encourages distrust and even hatred, and the workstations have a built-in anonymous bullying system. As a result, this is the place where we see the characters at their most vulnerable, and witness the most growth.

Yet even here, in the longest and most character-centric portion of the film, you can still feel the squeeze of the runtime. There's no quiet, intimate moments to really explore these people - it's all big moments and flat statements of intent. As a result we never feel as invested as we should. As great as the Battle Room sequences are, we're watching them passively instead of engaging with them. When the finale comes - when Ender finally faces the real horrors of war, in what should be a very powerful moment - we feel almost nothing. It's not that the film has failed to make us care, it's that it simply didn't have time.

There's a similar problem with the central ideas, as well as emotions. We're repeatedly told that Ender is a genius, and that the Formics are an overwhelming threat to humanity, but we never get to see either for ourselves. Ender's tactics are quickly glossed over, and we never even see a Formic until the battles at the end. It's all so rushed.
I keep going back to this because it's really the only thing holding Ender's Game back. It's a very strong film otherwise. Asa Butterfield is brilliant as Ender - both a child and a leader - and he's supported by strong performances from all the kids and adults around him, especially Ford. The ideas are clever and intriguing, the designs are striking - particularly that Battle Room - and the action is unique if not quite spectacular.

I really did like this film, all told, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. The problems are just a bit too pervasive and they sour the experience. I suspect that, somewhere, there's a three-to-four-hour director's cut of this film and, if that's the case, I hope that we one day get to see it. That version I would recommend in a second.