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Review by Joshua Stevenson
Ender’s Game plays like a Power Point presentation of the novel by Orson Scott Card. That’s not an inherent problem. Power Point presentations can be informative, entertaining, and occasionally are not complete wastes of time. I’m not going to go so far as to say that they can’t be exciting, transformative, and powerful— attributes which we might tend to associate with enjoyable movie-going— but the upper limit of what a Power Point can do is restricted by the fact that they consist of a person talking and advancing slides. Ender’s Game informs us, Power Point style, of the details of the novel, but barely functions as a movie.
The premise: Earth has been twice invaded by an insectoid race of aliens, the Formics. In ostensible preparation for a third attack, the humans of earth have been sifting their progeny to find unusually gifted children who can lead their fleets and defend the human race against extinction. They find their messiah in North Carolina.
A young boy, Ender Wiggin undergoes intense training and psychological manipulation at the hands of a government as they mold him to become a leader capable of both empathy and brutality. The argument is that 1) he’ll need to empathize strongly with the enemy in order to think like them and understand their motivations and tactics, and 2) he’ll need to be capable of making the sort of brutal decisions a commander must make to win wars.
The movie attempts to be a faithful adaptation of the book, and succeeds in this where it can. It might be too speculative, but I felt director Gavin Hood handling the material with tweezers and a soft-bristle toothbrush. Card himself takes a producer credit on the movie, and, though “Producer” doesn’t necessitate close creative involvement, it’s easy to imagine how this might affect a director’s decision-making process.
Beyond conjecture, it’s a burden that makes sense, as it’s a beloved book. Establishing how beloved is a little tricky, but on Amazon the title has a 4.6 star rating (5 is the highest) with nearly 6,200 reviews. For perspective, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has a 4.7 with just over 7,900. It’s not quite there, but it’s close.
The book’s structure and emphasis on Ender’s internal character become immediately problematic for the movie. The structure first.
The book moves from one training ground to another. We start on earth, progress to battle school, move through the ranks of battle school, and then on to command school. The narrative settles into two major environments, battle school and command school, both with very different rules and technologies which must be introduced and understood. In the book, passage through these spheres is regimented and almost plods as Ender completes each task with dauntless efficiency.
Ender’s internal life and struggles with his empathy and brutality pull us through the more mechanical motions of the plot. I’m in danger of sounding like a fan of the book, I realize. I didn’t find the book to be anything special, but it works pretty well; it’s a compelling read. What makes it so is that we see inside Ender’s thought process as he struggles with his empathy and brutality and as he meets challenges. Ender is a problem solver, and it’s to Card’s credit that the book sets up interesting challenges which Ender solves with mostly credible insight and innovation.
The book can take its time to explain the tech. The book can pull us through videogame-esque mission/reward structures with an internal view of the character. The movie ends up hamstrung by both of these requirements.
What we get is a movie about an exceptionally gifted child who accomplishes each task he’s assigned with ease. In the book we’re given evidence of Ender’s capabilities and his struggles with the challenges he’s set, and through these struggles he earns our respect. Because the movie is so concerned with moving us along, we never get a sense of why Ender’s able to progress, or why moving along would be hard for anyone else. Though the movie attempts to be grounded sci-fi, Ender’s abilities might as well be magic. Imagine The Bourne Identity if we never heard Jason Bourne’s description of his tactical abilities (“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars . . . at this altitude I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking”). We wouldn’t have a sense of what he can do that we can’t. If we don’t have a firm understanding of how an allegedly strategically minded character’s mind is working, we can’t be expected to feel the triumph of those strategies. A moment like the one in the diner in Bourne could have given us a sense of respect for Ender’s abilities, but no such moment lands. This is unfortunate since the book contains many such moments.
Since Ender is supposed to become the strategist to end all strategists (a necessity if the human race is to continue existing) this is arguably all the movie had to do, demonstrate how such a commander is formed. But because the movie plods through the book point by point, it has no time to develop this perspective of its central character. As is often the case with adaptations, adherence to the source material undermines the source material.
In a machine so devoted to conveying information, what can competent performances accomplish? As always, very little. Asa Butterfield, who played the title character in Scorcese’s Hugo, isn’t noticeably weak here, but that’s all that can be said of him. Harrison Ford is entirely miscast as a dour military educator. You’ve got a forking path of Harrison Ford; one side is Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and the other is Clear and Present Danger and The Fugitive. I’m boring, but I prefer the first. He should swagger and fret. Harrison Ford as an intense, manipulative, military education administrator? A space-principal? He’s a baffling choice. Why not someone who can’t help but convey sublimated menace? Alan Rickman? Gary Oldman? Anyone British and slimy.
Ben Kingsley conveys a character with some measure of life, and this puts him completely out of place. Anyone with an even mild sensitivity to believable performance will take a deep, involuntary breath when he appears, but this doesn’t do the movie any favors.
I have a growing suspicion that the one thing most of us humans ask for from aesthetic experience is transformation. We want to see six swans turned back into six sons. We want to see Bruce Banner become the Hulk. We want to see Wallace Stevens turn the void into a snowman. We want to see Penelope’s suitors judged and Odysseus return to rule his house. We want to see musical figures transposed and glorified. We want to see the dead made alive.
But see, that’s even the wrong verb. We want to feel the transformation in our bodies, or experience it. This isn’t merely a sense experience, although it can involve that. We want to feel the wrong made right, or the good made better. Genre stories (sci-fi, fantasy, crime, etc.) tend to be more explicit about transformation. Two recent-ish movies have accomplished this “in the body” feeling of transformation for me: World War Z (I’m completely serious), and Gravity.
If you haven’t seen those, I’m talking about the feeling you get in The Matrix when Neo learns to control the illusion around him, or when Luke reaches out with his feelings, sinks the proton torpedoes, and blows up the Death Star. The climax of Die Hard hands out transformation like grocery-store samples.
This is honestly all a genre movie really has to do: create a moment of felt transformation.
A corollary suspicion to this one: this sort of felt transformation is an aesthetic good. This transformation connects your body to a feeling of rightness, or relief, or of satisfaction, or catharsis, that transcends your body. Acknowledging the satisfaction necessarily connects you to an order beyond yourself, outside yourself, ex stasis. It is an experience in matter that points beyond matter.
A bit heady for an Ender’s Game review? Probably. But here’s the point:
Ender’s Game isn’t transformative. But it could have been. The book, whose moral universe is twisted at best, contains the seeds of real transformation. But a story that chooses against transformation, and, in this instance, feels like a recitation of facts about a novel (a Power Point presentation), is a story that opts to remain in the realm of mere matter. In fact, it may be that the aesthetic goal of transformation is more important than the presence of a moral argument, and is certainly more important than consideration of a piece of art in terms of worldview, because it prods us into harmony with a reality not made by human hands.