Judge Gordon Sullivan is still playing a beginner's game of chess.
The future must be won.
We should pause for a moment at the outset to acknowledge why Ender's Game has remained a hit with three decades worth of readers. It's not Orson Scott Card's prose, which can be a bit mushy, nor is it the fact that the plot revolves around a militaristic sci-fi future. No, I suspect people love Ender's Game because its protagonist, Ender Wiggin, is not like the other child heroes of literature. Harry Potter isn't stupid, and neither Katniss Everdeen. However, they don't pride themselves on their intelligence, the book learning, or their pure ability to think. Ender, though, is a character who is successful for these reasons. Sure he's brave and strong like Harry and Katniss, but his intelligence is what sets him apart in the canon of child-heroes, as his intelligence doesn't turn him into just another "nerd." Readers, especially those who are above-average in intelligence, therefore tend to respond to Ender and find in him a welcome model for surviving difficult situations with intelligence rather than muscularity or charm (and I count myself as one of those).
That kind of attachment is exactly what Hollywood looks for when deciding what to adapt, and Ender's Game has been in serious consideration at least since The Matrix revolutionized what people thought special effects could do. Finally, in 2013 the film was released to middling box office. What Ender's Game (Blu-ray) will allow viewers to see is that the film largely fails because it doesn't take that attachment to Ender seriously, even if in return we get a sci-fi action film that's gorgeous to look at.
Facts of the Case
In the future, Earth is almost decimated by an invasion by the Formics, and insect-like race of aliens. Though humanity rallied, thanks to commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3), to ensure that we survive, the world military begins to recruit children because they can be fearless and responsive. Though he doesn't cut the usual figure of the warrior, Andrew Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) is chosen by head honcho Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back) as the next military messiah. Still, he has to make it through Battle School before he can hope to take on the Formic threat.
I'm not against an adaptation of Ender's Game, and though I have fond memories of the book, I don't object to the film adaptation because it's not faithful to the book. The problem is that the book has two competing impulses that are only fitfully represented in the film.
On the one hand, Ender's Game is a rollicking sci-fi tale of future warfare. Numerous scenes take place in a zero-G "battle room" where Ender gets to demonstrate his tactical brilliance and leadership abilities. Then there are the Formic battles and other sci-fi trappings. These are the stuff of tentpole blockbusters, and it takes much of the film's $110 million budget to make these scenes sing. There's a temptation to turn Ender's Game into just another sci-fi film filled with kids and battles, The Hunger Games-in-space kind of thing.
That doesn't happen because of the source's other competing impulse. In addition to being a sci-fi warfare novel, Ender's Game is a meditation on the cost of violence and the abuse that can result in greatness. Ender is emotionally and physically isolated to turn him into a self-sufficient warrior, one who can lead the human race to victory over an implacable foe. The fact that this will turn him into an empty shell capable of genocide is the necessary cost. Ultimately, Ender's Game, as a novel, is back story or preparation for Card's later work with the character, including Speaker for the Dead, which requires Ender's dark past to give the narrative depth.
The problem with this adaptation of Ender's Game is that it doesn't pick one side or another. If they'd gone for pure blockbuster territory, emphasizing the battle room and Formic run-ins, it would have lacked depth but been a satisfying spectacle. Or, they could have chosen to make the film a dark fable about the cost of raising children for war, even if that would have necessitated a much smaller budget and lost us the top-notch special effects sequences.
To approach the problem in another way, we might mention the controversy that attended the film before its release. In the years since Ender's Game was written, Orson Scott Card has increasingly gone on record with his anti-homosexual stance. Many people suggested a boycott of the film on this basis, that he shouldn't profit given his vehement political stance. One of the reasons Card, more than most homophobes, garnered such hatred is the sense of betrayal felt by readers. Ender's Game belongs to a small group of novels that help kids deal with their outsider status. Ender's intelligence puts him apart, and Card is so wonderful in eliciting sympathy for his hero that it's hard to imagine that he, as an author, could so completely oppose the love represented by gay marriage.
It's precisely that sympathy for Ender that's missing from Ender's Game. We don't get the kind of access to his interiority that makes him understandable in the novel. Asa Butterfield is fine, but the script doesn't give him enough to play to give viewers a sense of what's going on with Ender. Sure he's brilliant, but he's not so obviously brilliant or charming in the film to make him really watchable. So the whole film feels emotionally dead, the worst of both worlds. The world of the military adults is a cold place of death, and the world of the child soldiers, while spectacular, isn't as affecting as it could be because these kids aren't really well-drawn characters.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the film's defense, it works as a pure exercise in spectacle. Much of the story takes place in a futuristic environment, including a zero-G room. These scenes are especially good-looking, and there's enough action throughout the film to make a fine, though not spectacular, latter-day sci-fi actioner. The film pretty much bombed at the box office (breaking even globally on the production, but that means a loss when advertising is factored in). Those who didn't catch the film in theaters (and don't mind giving a bit of money to a rabid homophobe) will find Ender's Game a passable way to spend some time assuming no one expects greatness.
Except, of course, where Ender's Game (Blu-ray) is concerned. Things start with the film's 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer, which is pretty gorgeous. Detail is astonishingly high, and the CGI and human elements blend pretty seamlessly, with no apparent increase in softness. The deep blacks of space are consistent, and black levels are generally strong. Colors, like the yellow the kids wear when they first get to Battle School, have appropriately bold as well. Just as strong is the DTS-HD 7.1 sound track. Dialogue is always clean and clear, but the real selling point is the immersion of the battle sequences. Clarity and directionality are both great, and the sound mix does an amazing job of placing viewers in the Zero-G environment. The subwoofer also gets a lot of use with explosions and the film's score.
Extras kick off with a commentary by director Gavin Hood who spends a lot of time talking about the details of the shoot and how things were achieved. A more bird's-eye view is provided by producers Gigi Pritzker and Roberto Orci, as the pair address changes from the book and the long road to screen for Card's cult hit. We also get a 49-minute making-of that goes into the usual points about the production, its cast, and the special effects. A smaller featurette deals with the film's use of motion capture, and we get 10 minutes of deleted scenes. The film's trailer is included as well. This is also a combo pack, with a DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy included as well.
If you can ignore the title and lower your expectations, this flick delivers a credible albeit cold sci-fi action adventure that will hit the spot for special-effects junkies. For fans of Orson Scott Card's novel, this is like a zombie version of Ender's Game; you can see the body move around, but the spirit has departed.
Too good looking to be guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Review content copyright © 2014 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.