Up front, I’ve been waiting over 30 years for the technology and guts to exist that would allow this movie to be made. So, yeah, my expectations were fairly inflated. Ender’s Game, the book, is one of the best stories about war and its costs that has ever been written. It’s first two sequels I’m equally enchanted with, though they are significantly different. Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Tsotsi), who wrote and directed this adaptation had huge shoes to fill and not a lot of background success on his c.v. to work with.
I’ll never be able to say whether the movie elicited the same punch as the book because I know the book too well. I can say that the movie had punch, if not as much of a roundhouse as I’d have liked. The manipulation of the children is something that is clear from the beginning, but the emotional hit of it is left to you. An argument could be made that it was Hood’s intention to leave the judging to the audience, but I think it is fairly clear what his point of view is and, as such, that it feels somewhat hollow is a miss on the part of the adaptation. And this is is the nub of my concern.
Honestly, this deserved to be two movies (at least). Given the current drive for franchises, I’m sorry it didn’t help them expand Ender’s length so that the detail and relationships could be more fully explored. The story and its resolution demand those connections. Simple moments of conscience cannot elicit the same sympathy nor simpatico for the audience. While the action and training sequences are done extraordinarily well, as a whole they are rushed. It becomes montage rather than experience, but it is the experience that is important for Ender. There is a natural break point in the film that would have been a perfect ending to a Part One. It would have felt complete and yet allowed for at least one more film. Risky on the studio’s part, but as we are seeing at the box office, good story sells.
At least the story really does stay true to the focus on the kids, while being clear about the adult influences that are in control. Which also means Butterfield (Hugo, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) has to carry the film. He does manage to give Ender a strong opening and a reasonable arc. Hood chose to keep him rather flat in his affect, which feels right as it causes a cognitive friction for the audience, but it also makes it harder for the audience to connect with him and, therefore, the story. Arias (The Kings of Summer) really gets to show off his range, if you only know his other roles and Breslin (The Call) hits her marks well, despite an extremely abbreviated role as compared to the original material. Steinfeld (True Grit) also does a lot with very little to work with. Though she doesn’t quite come off as strong as I’d have liked, she clearly has chops and has many more movies coming soon to prove it. Generally, all the young actors delivered nicely.
As for the adults, Ford is a little strident, but he also has his reasons. To be fair, the character was rather black and white in the book as well. Fear will do that to a person. Kingsley gets to riff a little on his Iron Man 3 Mandarin character while still delivering something new. And Davis (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) plays to the part, but, sadly, isn’t given much to chew on.
All of my kvetching aside, I did get a sense of horror and sadness for the children. I did get a sense of the struggles for the adults. On some level the story is there, intrinsic to the situations if not the writing and directing. I don’t think anyone seeing it can walk out without an opinion and without thinking. In a world where war and conflict seem to be unending anymore, it is an even more important story than ever. I can only hope that the DVD release will be an extended version that fills in some of the gaps I felt. In the meantime, it is worth seeing, and seeing on the big screen (IMAX optional–I saw it on IMAX and while there are moments, I don’t think it warranted the the extra cost).