So, I didn’t see Ender’s Game in theater. But my friend Robyn did, and she’s here to tell you all about it while I kick back and drink a mimosa or something. -C.S.
Ender’s Game is my favorite book. I first read it in 1991, and I’ve re-read it about once a year ever since. So, I was extremely ambivalent about seeing the movie. On the one hand, Ender’s Game! On the other, HOLLYWOOD + Ender’s Game. But, since they did such a good job with my other childhood favorite, Lord of the Rings, I let a friend convince me to go.
Sigh. I should have listened to my gut.
I didn’t hate it. Okay, actually, I did kind of hate it. BUT I could tell that the writers tried very hard, so E for effort people. But while they managed to cram most of the plot of the book into the movie, they ended up completely missing the point of the story.
- It was unavoidable that this review be almost as much of a book review as it is a movie review, because I couldn’t help but compare the two constantly. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is nearly identical to the book, spoiler-wise. If you haven’t read the book, definitely stop reading this and go check it out!
- Also, I am not here to debate Orson Scott Card’s political opinions and whether/how they should impact our judging of Ender’s Game. While considering an author’s cultural background and situation can definitely inform our understanding of their works, I am going to take the less contentious route of critiquing the movie and book entirely separate from that.
Summary: Many years ago, Earth was attacked by a bug-like alien race. The humans barely won back then, and they aren’t going to wait around to be attacked again. They’ve assembled a fleet to try to wipe out their enemies before they can come back, but they need a bunch of brilliant children to lead it, and a particularly brilliant child to be the fleet’s general: Ender Wiggin.
1. There are so many awkward voiceovers by Ender in this movie. Look, voiceovers are tricky in the best of cases (e.g. Anthony Hopkins has an unbelievably captivating voice, and yet Odin still sounds silly at the beginning of The Dark World), and Ender has to do 4-5 of them, all of which are full of clunky exposition that could have been cut or shuffled off elsewhere. That’s just not fair to the actor.
The name of the aliens is changed in the movie to be the “Formics”… apparently the director was so worried that posh British folk would be upset over the word Bugger that they changed the name. First off, seriously? I mean, Joss Whedon got away with mewling quim, and you’re worried about Bugger? This level of squeamishness is an ominous sign 45 seconds into a movie adaptation of a book with far more offensive material than somewhat mundane British slang.
Second, if you’re going to change the name, at least make it something that doesn’t sound like a countertop material.
2. In a very Game of Thrones move, the movie makes Ender and all the other kids about 5-10 years older than they are in the book. Ok, I get it. It’s hard to find a 6-year-old who can convincingly pull off tactical genius, lead mock battles and beat the crap out of other kids. Plus throughout the book, Ender is supposed to age from 6-11, and no amount of makeup is going to make that a trivial onscreen transition.
I would have been on board with 10 year old Ender, but Asa Butterfield was 15 when they filmed, and is easily as tall as the other children who are supposed to be able to beat him up. Plus, one of the main points of Ender’s game is that these children are being put into adult situations way beyond their maturity level, because even though their reasoning capabilities are far beyond average, they’re still children. Their innocence is the entire reason the military wants them as commanders, and the reason they keep lying to Ender about the things he is doing—if he knew, he wouldn’t be willing to keep playing the game.
3. On a related note, the movie rational for having kids commanding humanity’s fleet of REAL warships is—wait for it–that they’re better at video and board games and have faster reflexes.
To be fair, they later add on that kids “integrate information” more easily, but still, that’s a stunning grasp of the skills you need to be military leaders, Gavin Hood. It’s a mystery that the DOD doesn’t have you on call.
4. One of the other main themes of the book is the tension between a person’s autonomy and their responsibilities to humanity. The adults take a very ‘ends justify the means’ approach to military training, and blatantly admit to each other that they are destroying Ender’s happiness (and the other children, to a lesser extent) in order to make him into the tool that humanity needs to win the war. Ender himself is aware that the adults are lying to him and using him, but he keeps going along with the game because he keeps being reminded of why it’s so important. In fact, he himself starts to treat his subordinates (Bean) the same way the adults are treating him—keeping the cycle going.
It’s this tension that makes Ender’s discovery of the Bugger queen at the very end of the book so heartbreaking. Ender realizes that he didn’t have to kill the Buggers because they weren’t really the enemy, so the game/war he’s sacrificed so much for was actually meaningless.
I’ll come back to what the movie does with this theme in the synopsis. I give them props for trying, but it ends up being very tell, not show, and a lot more preachy and judgmental than it needed to be.
5. They almost completely cut Peter and Valentine from the movie. For all the things they cut that I think were a tragedy, this is not one of them. I love the story of the siblings, and the ways that they use their power and intelligence differently, but you can show Ender’s personality and mental breakdown without them if you have to. And given that the movie was 2 hours long already, something had to go.
BUT, if you aren’t going to have Peter the jackal be the most formative person in Ender’s life, why have him at all? The movie has a couple of lines establishing that he is a douche to Ender, tells us that he was too violent for Battle School (in a voiceover, of course), and then has one throw-away line from Ender about how he feels “the Peter in me” when he fights. Later on, both Peter and Valentine show up in Ender’s ‘Mind Game’ and freak him out, but because we don’t know them very well, it doesn’t make much sense. The amount of attention isn’t nearly enough to set up Ender’s hatred of violence and himself as he becomes more violent, and it certainly isn’t enough to set up Peter’s (kind of) redemption later on, which is meant to be a proxy to Ender’s hope for redemption.
So, it’s pointless, and it eats up movie space: either have Peter in the movie, or don’t.
I’m harping on this issue because it’s the main problem I have with this movie: they blindly stick to the plot without thinking about what purpose each element was meant to serve, so when they cut things or adapt them to the screen, it doesn’t seem to be done thoughtfully.
Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield)
Hi, I make this face for most of the movie.
I enjoyed Asa Butterfield in Hugo, but he was either not ready for the role of Ender, or the writing/direction gave him nothing to work with. Given the other complaints I have, I suspect the latter.
Even though the other characters keep saying how special and smart Ender is (the movie is about as subtle with that point as a giant hammer), it is difficult to feel sympathy for him as a person, and it’s not clear why anyone would trust him with a fleet, let alone thrust it at him. He alternates between seeming like a dick to seeming weak, sad, and whiny.
A bit of the problem is Ender’s age, as mentioned above. In the book, he is far younger than all the other children, which really highlights just how smart he is. You lose that when Ender is the same age. More importantly though, Ender is supposed to be a talented leader on top of his genius, because of his ability to deeply understand other people and how they think (like Valentine) and his need to win (like Peter)—this is why he is able to beat the Buggers, and also why he comes to hate himself deeply for beating people, in real life and in the games. At the same time, Ender is supposed to be extremely in control, and stoic. His subordinates have very little idea that he’s emotionally falling apart.
Having any character be that complicated is a tall order, and I grant that it is easier in the book, where you know everything Ender is thinking. But this weak/strong dichotomy is possible with the right acting and direction—just see Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in Catching Fire, or Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Thor. And it’s completely missing with Ender.
You know, in my imaginary re-casting of Ender’s Game, I think that Kodi Smith-McPhee could have been a good Ender, at the same age he was when he did Let Me In. He does a lot with very limited facial expressions.
Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford)
Only you can prevent Bugger Formic invasion!
I expected to find Harrison Ford a bit jarring as Graff, but I was actually pleased. He’s not Sandra Bullock in Gravity quality, but he’s also not Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin (I’d say I’m sorry if you liked that movie, but I’m not. Seriously, that movie was horrible. What’s wrong with you?).
Anyway, Graff actually managed to capture world-weary military commander who understands that sometimes surviving means doing pretty despicable things. He successfully walks the fine line of sympathetic (at least relatable) antagonist. Sure, he manipulates and lies to children for a living, but he is completely convinced that the fate of the entire human race is at stake, so…there is that as well.
Major Anderson (Viola Davis)
I was so pleasantly surprised to see them cast Anderson as a black woman, because while Anderson in the books was male, there is no reason the character needs to be. Then, it became clear that she had also been changed from the second in command at the Battle School into, essentially, a child psychologist. Oh. Nice surprise, meet cliché gender roles.
In Anderson’s capacity as psychologist, she has a few good lines about the damage that they are doing to Ender which are supposed to paint Graff as an uncaring bastard, but they came off unconvincing, because very little that is done to Ender in the movie actually seems that bad on the adults’ part, other than the neglect that lead to the fight with Bonzo. He has friends, a pseudo-UST-girlfriend, and wins a lot. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for emotional breakdown, it sounds like milk and cookies + nap time = dreams about puppy dogs.
So essentially, Anderson exists to make you hate Graff and sympathize with Ender, but since one isn’t particularly inclined to sympathize with Ender, she just comes across as heavy handed, telling the audience that Graff is a bad guy although his actions do not conclusively show that. UGH! What is so frustrating about this is that Anderson and Graff’s philosophical dialogues at the beginning of almost every chapter are one of the best things about the book. They could literally have lifted that dialogue word-for-word into the movie (and they do, in one or two cases) and it would have been great exposition and character development. Why change it?
Anderson is definitely not the most problematic female character though. That honor goes to:
Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld)
I feel things deeply, cause of my lady parts.
There aren’t a lot of women at Battle School. OS Card explains this with some mumbo jumbo about evolution working against us, and that’s a pretty dumb reason, but at least the one female Battle School character he does give us is Petra, and she’s an unequivocal bad ass: a crazy marksman, one of the best tacticians at Battle School, and she teaches Ender basic Battle Room maneuvers and how to aim when Bonzo decides to be a dick and refuses to let him practice, by teaching him how to shoot as well as the basics of the Battle Room. So, bad ass. You know what she’s not? The Token Female Character.
And Hailee Steinfeld…is. She is definitely a victim of poor directing, because none of her acting in the movie is bad, per se. It’s just…Hollywood, did we have to make every female character with lines the dumping ground for emotional moments? Petra essentially takes on the combined roles of Alai (closest friend), Dink, (teacher, dispenser of philosophy), Valentine (emotional connection) AND Bean (mentee, confidant), which only partially overlap with the roles she actually played in the book (teacher, friend, superior officer, competitor). Petra has enough to do without having her constantly laugh and/or make sad faces with Ender. It gets to the point where some of the scenes bordered on UST, and if they had actually crossed the line of making her a love interest, I would have bitterly wept right there in the theatre.
Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias)
Every time Bonzo was on screen, my brain started singing ‘Short People’. I am going to hell.
Setting aside his physicality for one moment, Ender’s douche bag of a commander is one of my favorite characters in this movie. He is not a fantastic leader and is extremely threatened by Ender’s intelligence, both of which are very clear.
Unfortunately, what is entirely lost is what a physical threat Bonzo is to Ender. For 5 straight chapters of a 15 Chapter book, Bonzo is a constant reminder to Ender that no matter how much he can beat his enemies by using his brain, he is still a little boy who can be hurt very badly, very easily. This threat, and the subsequent tension that comes with it, is undermined when Bonzo is close to a foot shorter than Ender is, and ends up looking more like a disgruntled banker than a menacing Spanish rage-machine.
Detailed plot summary:
Awkward voiceover #1 tells us that humanity was almost wiped out until a genius named Mazer Rackham gave his life to save us. Now that he’s dead, we need to train a bunch of kids to lead our fleet so that we can go take the enemy out before they come back.
Ender (Asa Butterfield), apparently the gamer of all gamers, beats an older kid who handles the loss with all the grace of a WOW raid leader during a wipe. On the heels of this victory, Ender is called in to get his monitor removed, and we get our first glimpse of Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis). They discuss whether or not Ender is truly ready for Battle School, and we get our first famous book quote: “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you, he’s the one.” Cool, although from what the audience has seen of the monitor, it’s less of seeing through Ender’s eyes and more of watching him through close-circuit TV Hunger-Games style.
Now that Ender is “out of the program” the boys from earlier come to beat him up, but he beats the crap out of one of them so they leave him alone. He goes home, and his older brother Peter is angry—not on Ender’s behalf, but at Ender, because he lasted longer in the program than Peter did. Basically, Peter’s a jealous dick. And Valentine’s a…loving sister. That’s about all the character development we get for these two for the rest of the movie. Oh and we learn that Ender is a “third,” but not what that means or why it is important, so good luck figuring it out if you didn’t read the book.
Graff comes by, and surprise! Ender didn’t wash out, they just wanted to see how good he was at beating up other kids before they offered him a place. Actually, given the amount that I am ripping this movie apart, I should say that it got this scene really right. The exchange between Ender and Graff about whether Ender wants to go to Battle School shows that Ender has no gut desire for violence, and is going only out of a sense of duty.
Ender gets on a space shuttle to the Battle School, and we meet Alai and Bean, who are going to become Ender’s Background Bros a bit later in the movie, but for now, don’t have a great first impression of him because Graff announces to everyone that Ender is so far above them that they would basically be Formic-meat without him. This is the point where in the book, another boy starts hitting Ender on the head and Ender breaks the boy’s arm on accident, completely alienating him from the rest of his launch group. By cutting this scene, I think the movie missed a big opportunity to show Ender’s unwitting (yet brutal) violence and his horror at that part of himself (they could have instead cut awkward voiceover #3 where Ender says that learning to fight makes him feel “like Peter”).
It turns out that the alienation was 100% deliberate on Graff’s part, because complete isolation is part of his plan to shape Ender into The Best Military Commander Ever. He tells Anderson (and us) that Ender “must never believe that anyone will ever help him,” so that he will always rely only on himself.
At the bunk, Sergeant Dap, the new cadets’ supervisor, performs the traditional military-scream-fest about maggots or gelding or something, and Graff tells them that nobody in the room is their friend, but is a competitor for valuable promotions. I know it’s a long walk from the shuttle, but did Graff forget his speech from 5 minutes ago about Ender being so far above the competition that they shouldn’t bother?
Classes and training start, and we see the same footage of the Formic invasion that we saw at the beginning (suggestion: save 3 minutes and cut that first voiceover about the war, and let the audience stay in suspense about why we’re putting such young kids in the military until now). The Battle Room is gorgeous—not what imagined when I read the book, but I wasn’t disappointed at all. In figuring out how to use their guns, Bean and Ender manage to mend some fences, and then in class, a guy named Bernard is a complete douche to Alai, and Ender defends him with a very clever prank. This cements their friendship, which we know because the other boys move over to eat with him in the lunchroom, leaving Bernard the bully alone.
Ender writes a voiceover email to Valentine saying how hard Battle School is and asking why she doesn’t write back. He then challenges Graff and Dap about whether their emails are being filtered. This new scene takes up 5 min and accomplishes nothing as far as I can tell. Ender has already made friends, so we don’t need his plucky insubordination for that, and the news that Graff has been filtering emails would be WAY more powerful later in the movie when he takes Ender to see Valentine. Plus, the foreshadowing of Dap telling Ender he will never salute him and then later on saluting him is…cliché, at best.
Ender is promoted to Salamander army, and his new commander Bonzo is pissed at being saddled with such a noob. He orders Ender not to get in his way, and when Petra helps him practice, tells him that’s not allowed. Except Ender knows his rights regarding free time, and in a great exchange, metaphorically punches Bonzo in the family jewels until he lets Ender do what he wants.
One of the games Ender plays on his tablet is called the “Mind Game,” and in it, he interacts with a fantasy world as a variety of creatures. We get to see a bit into the Peter side of Ender’s mind, here, because he solves a supposedly unsolvable puzzle by taking his mouse and burrowing it into a giant’s eye, thereby killing it. That’s dark. After that, his avatar turns into a boy, and he finds Valentine and Peter, the latter of whom tells him he’s finally a killer. Neither of his siblings should be in the simulation though, and a very upset Graff tells Anderson to change the program. Anderson replies that she can’t, and that perhaps Ender is feeling pressure, and then we have the best quote in the movie! Graff says, “Of course he’s feeling pressure, Anderson! This is a boot camp, for kids who are going to have to face a real enemy!”
Ender gets his own army, called Dragon Army, and I think at this point the writers were hungry for lunch and decided to start using the Cliff’s Notes version of the book, because this is basically what happens: Ender’s army is a bunch of “misfits” including Bean Alai and Bernard because hey remember him that makes sense but Ender says I’m going to need your suggestions too because I can’t make all the decisions around here and therefore they start to do really well in the battles so yay and now Dap finally salutes him so touching double yay until Graff for some reason decides to put two armies against them including Bonzo’s except Graff ALSO apparently thinks that’s not fair to do even though he just did it so he has Petra and Dink join Ender for the fight because wtf why not and then there’s no way they can win so Ender “cheats” the system by sending one person through the door to win the game which he is apparently the only one clever enough to think of despite Dap telling everyone that way back in minute 25 of the movie and you caught all of that right?
This face. Seriously, this face.
Here are the totally trivial and not-at-all important things that are supposed to be happening in this part of the story, which constitutes almost 1/3 of the book:
- Ender’s army is actually made up of misfits, and does not include any friends, because remember, Graff wants Ender isolated. Oh yeah, that theme.
- Ender tells his army that Bean is the best solider among them to isolate him, and realizes he has turned into Graff.
- We see Ender lead, and how he is revolutionizing the way Battles are played.
- Graff has Anderson rig the battle schedule to push Ender’s army beyond what any other army has ever been asked (or able) to do. The stress of this starts to truly wear Ender down, because he recognizes that he can never afford to lose, even in a game.
- There is an active plot to kill Ender led by Bonzo, and although the adults know, they don’t do anything about it, because Ender has to understand that he will never get any help from anyone. Oh yeah, that theme too.
Ok, so instead, angry Bonzo attacks Ender in the showers and Ender accidentally kills him gives him a serious head injury. I would have stood behind this change, even though I think it weakens the horror and self-hatred Ender feels, except then Anderson shows up and apologizes to Ender for the adults not stopping this. What happened to doing whatever it takes to make Ender a self-sufficient leader who will not rely on anyone to save him, no matter how young he is?
Ender decides that he won’t be their monster anymore, which is pretty bad news for Graff because the fleet is close to arriving and he needs a commander ASAP. So, he asks Valentine to manipulate Ender into going on, which she begrudgingly does. This scene is well done, and if it weren’t for the context of the rest of the movie, would have been quite powerful.
Ender and Graff head off to Command School, where he learns that he will be playing a new training game on a simulator, with a team (Alai, Bean, Petra, Dink, and Bernard). As the best shooter, Petra is in charge of their main weapon, called Dr. Device, which breaks molecules apart at an atomic level to create an expanding field of destruction, as long as the enemy is grouped close enough.
Ender also has a new teacher, who is…duh duh duh…not dead Mazer Rackham! Turns out he got on a spaceship and flew close to the speed of light so that he would only experience a few years while Earth experienced 50, so then he could train the next commander. The scenes between Ender and Mazer are the best in the movie, and there should have been more of them. Once again, the movie completely shuffles away the pressure that Mazer is putting on Ender, which in the book, destroys his mental health further to the point where he passes out during a simulation. What the kids are doing just doesn’t seem that hard.
On their final exam day, the enemy absolutely overwhelms them, and for the first time, they are fighting around a planet. Like his last fight in Battle School, Ender decides to “cheat” – he’s going to use Dr. Device against the planet. Losing almost every ship in the process, he gets Petra’s ship close enough to the planet to fire, leading to the utter destruction of every ship in the area.
Of course, you all know the twist: these were never simulations, and Ender has been fighting the real war this entire time. He has just unknowingly committed xenocide. And this is the real reason the adults (Mazer in particular) couldn’t be the leader, because although he was empathetic enough to understand the enemy, once he understood them he could never in good conscience kill them all.
This is an absolutely horrifying moment, and Asa Butterfield handles it so well. It would have been even more personally horrifying, though, if we had gotten to see Ender struggle and suffer more throughout the movie, so that it’s not just horrifying on a general “xenocide seems a bit morally dubious” sort of way, but also in a “I gave up everything for this betrayal?” way, too.
Ender rushes to his room and collapses, and in a dream, realizes that the surface of the planet he is currently on has a structure exactly like the scene with Valentine from his Mind Game, because the Formic Queen has been sending him dreams all along (#HeartKnowledge!) He wakes up and rushes to it. Inside is a Queen (just wondering–how has she been chilling on this planet all this time without anyone noticing?). She doesn’t talk to Ender, unlike in the book, but he realizes that she is dying and wants him to take the fertilized cocoon of a Bugger Queen with him until he can find a planet safe for the Buggers to return and live in harmony with humanity.
Too much time spent worrying about the minutiae; too little time spent thinking about what they wanted the actual themes of the movie to be. I still believe an amazing adaptation could be made of Ender’s Game, but this movie just didn’t get there.
Grade: C- (only due to grade inflation, because it is, admittedly, better than 47 Ronin).
Mewling Quim Award: Co-producer Orson Scott Card. Why did you do this to your incredible book?