Ender’s Game is of that type of movie that is especially difficult to review. Everything about it, from the acting (for the most part) to the writing (for the most part) to the set design and special effects is serviceable, adequate. The film is unlikely to provoke spasms of rage in book fans or general moviegoers in the same way I Am Legend did, but it is also unlikely to imprint itself in your memory. The reaction it’s most likely to provoke is a great big shrug as your unconscious mind immediately sets about the task of forgetting it. I suppose it can best be compared to one of those computer-produced orchestral pieces. All the notes are right, and it’s hard to define what’s wrong, save for a lack of passion and humanity. Ender’s Game’s biggest flaws are not what it does, but what it fails to do; sins of omission. Nothing really stands out. The effects are glitzy, but a bit cluttered and overdone. The script is adequate, except when it veers into the cheesy ,as it does often; a scene where Ender draws too pistols and proceeds to mow down enemies like he’s come from James McAvoy’s Wanted is guaranteed to make you roll your eyes, as is the indifference with which his superior officers greet his never-ending insubordination.
Any movie based on a novel as beloved and popular as Ender’s Game is going to invite comparisons to its source material. Both book and movie share a similar premise; in order to prepare for a coming alien attack, an international organization of military strategists has decided that the best approach is to take a bunch of kids and place them in a ruthless training program where they will learn strategy, tactics, and above all ruthlessness and competition. It’s a perfect metaphor for the South Korean school system, for the tiger mom approach, or even for the heavily competitive culture of modern America. It’s also a classic sci-fi alien invasion story. The protagonist, Ender Wiggin, just might be humanity’s best hope for survival, so he is singled out from the start for special (meaning especially cruel) treatment.
Somehow, the greatest divide between the film and book versions of Ender’s Game is in the two works’ respective tones, and in what aspects of the source material they tend to focus on. Ender’s Game the book was a dark, chilling piece of work that captured the terrible psychological consequences its brutal training program had on the child recruits. It delved into Ender’s mind, exploring the rise of his sociopathy, the overwhelming stress he grappled with, his feelings of extreme isolation. The movie, being a movie, focuses more on cool-looking stuff floating in space and then getting shot with laser guns. The child abuse element is still there, but it feels watered down. Throughout the entire movie, Ender calmly talks back to his superior officers, without suffering any consequences. It’s hard for a dystopian story to work of the government authority figure lacks any actual authority. The psychological element of the book is almost absent. In the hands of a more visionary director, it might have been brought to the forefront, where it belongs, but this movie feels tonally more similar to Harry Potter than to Lord of the Flies.
See the Trailer, with all its obligatory Inception BWAAAAS:
Taking the movie on its own, free of its connections to the novel, it’s still got its problems. The ending comes out of left field, and feels more like a hallucination than an actual part of the movie. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the whole movie’s ultimate twist, but the final few frames, designed to be dramatic and possibly pave the way for a sequel, are about as satisfying and comprehensible as the finale of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus—which is to say not at all. Another thing this move shares with that one—there will almost certainly be no sequel.
Perhaps the greatest failing is the movie’s air of inevitability. We never see Ender strained, stressed, or unsure. He wins time and again with relative calm and ease. Without the access to Ender’s mental anguish that the book gives us, he comes off too invincible, an untouchable boy-wonder. And that means that the movie ends up being, despite its compelling premise and stylish set pieces, a little bit dull.