Review: “Ender’s Game”

“Ender’s Game” is a perfectly fine adaption of a great science fiction novel. It is competently shot, competently acted, and adapted with devotion to the source material. It may be the best film adaptation of the book possible.

Does that make it a great movie? No, but it’s pretty good, and that’s a tall order considering the idiosyncratic subject matter.

For the uninitiated, “Ender’s Game” is a story set in Earth’s far future, a generation or three after a horrific attack on the planet by an alien race called the Formics. Earth almost didn’t survive, but humanity is now scouring the minds of its brightest children for the military leader of the future, the tactical genius able to repel the Formics once and for all. Young Andrew “Ender” Wiggin may be that leader, and he and other young minds are taken from their homes to train in a satellite school orbiting the globe.

There are a lot of things to commend regarding “Ender’s Game,” particularly from a technical standpoint. The special effects are engaging but not overly showy, pulling out the stops on the spectacle during a climactic space battle simulation that really keeps you in suspense, even if you know how it’s going to end. Even more impressive is the film’s restraint; in an age of superfluous explosions and empty moments of “awesome,” “Ender’s Game” is a remarkably quiet actioner, with its spare floating setpieces in the child space combat training simulator known as the Battle Room displaying an elegant simplicity.

The performances and writing are both good but not great. Asa Butterfield’s Ender and Harrison Ford’s Graff both hit the right notes of calculating but empathetic and gruff but dedicated, respectively. The acting standout here is Hailee Steinfeld as Ender’s friend Petra; her kind-heartedness is offset by just the right amount of cutting wit. As for the script, it foreshadows when it should, pulls from its source material where appropriate and doesn’t bludgeon the viewer with the film’s third-act twist – it’s workmanlike, yes, but in a way that inspires appreciation if not admiration.

The issue here is depth, not craft. Even with a two-hour run time, “Ender’s Game” feels rushed, careening headlong through the story’s important events and trying to fill in the very slim outer margins with character development along the way. In many ways, this is necessary – though a slim volume, the book version of “Ender’s Game” packs in a remarkable amount of story – but the predictable effect is that no story or character element gets the kind of special treatment it needs.

The characters say that Ender is brilliant, and that the intentional and unintentional psychological effects of the International Fleet’s emphasis on him as Earth’s last hope are wearing on him, but we have little time to see Butterfield actually portray tactical skill or emotional torment. Motivations and feelings change on a moment’s notice. A story originally written to take place over four or five years is boiled down into a few months.

And yet, this isn’t a book review. “Ender’s Game” must stand on its own as a film. While visually impressive and narratively sound, the film is kept from being a grade-A blockbuster because its emotions are only skin-deep. The book is simply held up in relief, a reverse explanation for why its adaptation feels so shallow.

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