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MOVIES: Ender’s Game – Visually striking, but with no real substance – Review

Arguably among the most famous science fiction novels of all time, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has been read by millions, young and old. Its fan base has grown steadily since the novel was published in 1985, a diverse readership encountering the novel through myriad avenues. A film version of Ender’s Game has been in the works – almost constantly – since the early 1990s, changing hands dozens of times as screenwriters, directors and producers struggled to adapt Card’s dense and intelligent material. Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has finally brought the project to fruition and the result is not entirely successful, but neither is it wholly without merits.

While fans of Card’s novel will certainly enjoy Hood’s “greatest hits” approach to the novel’s plot, those who haven’t read the source material will be very confused by not just the plot and characters, but by the lack of justification for why the story progresses as it does. Hood, who wrote the adaptation himself, has set out to hit all the key points of the book without realizing the hollow feeling it would give the film. Thankfully, Hood and his excellent visual effects crew took great care in bringing Card’s imagery to life. The film is impressive in its imagination, but it can’t save the flat characters and middling storyline.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, the title refers to Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a brilliant child who might just be the savior of all humankind. Sometime in the not too distant future, an alien race called Formics attack Earth, trying to annihilate our entire species. As a planet, we are able to fend them off, but leaders from around the planet are certain they will return one day. Very quickly, the International Federation is created, its sole purpose is defending the planet and training young children to prepare to one day do battle with the Formics.

Though he shouldn’t have been born at all (due to birth restrictions), Ender might be Earth’s only hope. Progressing quickly through his studies, he demonstrates to Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) that he has the potential to be a great leader. He is quickly enrolled in Battle School with Graff and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) taking great care to ensure he is tested more strenuously than any other cadet. Ender faces plenty of troubles at Battle School, due in large part to his being a naturally gifted strategist who soars past all of the other trainees. Though he makes a few friends, including Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), Ender is almost entirely alone. Finally being promoted to Command School, Ender finds himself faced with a final assignment he neither fully understands nor is prepared to carry out.

Hood struggles with his material because he is trying too hard to please fans of the novel. Ender’s Game progresses as if Hood has a checklist of moments in the novel he must somehow fit into the story regardless of whether it makes sense to the film or not. There are many superfluous exchanges and encounters that slow the plot and only point out the screenplay’s shortcomings. As a result, Ender’s Game: The Movie does not and cannot stand as its own artistic endeavor. Any viewer unfamiliar with Card’s novel will be lost and will have no way to connect with the characters.

Most frustrating, though, is the lack of concern for the timeline of the story. The present day of the film is, we’re told, 50 years after the Formics attack and yet humans have made unbelievable technological leaps in that short time. Battle School alone – which is located on an enormous rotating outpost that orbits the planet – would take hundreds of years to design and build and yet it has been operational for several classes of students when the film begins. This oversight is unforgivable for its clearly insulting tone towards the audience’s intelligence.

Despite all of this, Ender’s Game can be enjoyable at times because of Hood’s vision of the world of the near future. The production design is beautifully detailed and presents a unique approach to how humans would react to such an event. The aesthetics of the film are tremendous, but are sadly wasted as Hood spends too much time on the relationship between Ender and Graff, something which is secondary at best in the novel. The Battle Room sequences, which fans will most be looking forward to, are spectacular but also surprisingly brief. Why Hood and his visual effects artists did not unleash more impressive action is a mystery.

Ender’s Game is not a towering achievement but for mainstream moviegoers it will pass for acceptable. Hopefully Ender’s story ends here and Hood does not get his hands on the half-dozen other novels Card wrote in the series.

Grade: C-

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