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‘Ender’s Game’ Loses Personality in Journey From Book to Film

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CHICAGO – Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game” may be the best example of a current problem with science fiction: From “Oblivion” to “After Earth” to most of “Star Trek Into Darkness” and now this adaptation of the Orson Scott Card book, modern science fiction has become so depressingly sterile as to drain the genre of most of its joy.

Perhaps it’s the upgrades in CGI that have led to films that look like video game cut-scenes but these stories have been drained of what we need most from blockbuster entertainment – personality. “Ender’s Game” has so little edge that it’s completely round. It’s a serviceable film (certainly more than “After Earth”) but the streamlined, personality-less approach makes it feel like a product more than a story. The stakes are non-existent, partially because of the source material but also because we’re never invited to enjoy this world or what happens in it. It’s not a ride, it’s a demonstration. I miss when sci-fi offered rides.

Ender's Game
Ender’s Game
Photo credit: Summit

We know from the very beginning of “Ender’s Game,” as a quote of his is put on-screen like he’s the author of “The Art of War,” that Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is going to be an important military figure. And so what follows is a story of inevitable conclusion. How does Ender turn from the bullied kid to the powerful leader? Such a pre-determined narrative requires character, flaws, personality, and people with which we can relate. “Ender’s Game” goes far too smoothly from that opening quote to its final credits to engage viewers.

In that time, we watch as Ender leaves his home, including beloved sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), to join the International Fleet, the last line of defense against the Formics, an alien race who was defeated decades ago but who may be mounting another attack. The kids in training hear stories of the legendary Mazer Rackham and how he sacrificed himself for the greater good of mankind’s safety. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes that Ender could be the next Rackham, a leader or men and women who operates on a different level strategically than his peers. Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) is more concerned about Ender’s mental well-being, especially as Graff encourages the young man’s growth in solitude by isolating him through praise.

Ender's Game
Ender’s Game
Photo credit: Summit

As there’s not enough time to make his career ascendance feel natural, Ender quickly rises through the ranks of his school, moving up from recruit to commander in the blink of an eye. So much of the plot of “Ender’s Game” hinges on the internal growth of its lead character that it makes for an unusual film in its lack of narrative. There are a few decent set pieces, including a few built around a strategy-based game of sport designed to teach the children war tactics, but Ender seems to face very little opposition in his rise to military leadership. He goes from bullied to Commander so quickly that one misses the details of the journey that Card had more time to elucidate in the book.

The biggest problem with “Ender’s Game,” and most 2013 sci-fi, is how seriously the entire project takes itself. About halfway through, there’s a major incident in Ender’s life that almost pushes him out of the Academy (although even that event has been softened from book to film) and the dialogue gets so heavy-handed and overly sincere at this point and never turns back. There’s no joy, no fun to be had in far too much of “Ender’s Game.” Yes, there are some interesting tactical and war strategy concepts – enough to keep it more intellectually engaging than the awful “After Earth” or generic “Oblivion” – but they’re presented in the pretentious, overcooked, sterile way that has become such a drain on sci-fi.

Ender's Game
Ender’s Game
Photo credit: Summit

It’s a shame that the script and dull direction of “Ender’s Game” are so defeating because the cast actually isn’t half-bad. Asa Butterfield is asked to do some heavy lifting narratively to fill in those aforementioned gaps in Ender’s journey and he’s capable. I think he’ll be an interesting actor to watch as he grows up. Ford isn’t as lazy as he has been lately and actually shows signs of the great actor he used to be in one-on-one scenes with the young lead. Davis is far too talented for this thankless role but she’s never bad. Ditto Ben Kingsley, who appears too late to save the movie but tries his best (despite a questionable accent).

As more science fiction films go into production, I hope that producers, writers, and directors look at films like “After Earth,” “Oblivion,” and “Ender’s Game” and realize that they don’t need to smooth every edge out with CGI. They need to focus on the people as much as their vision of the future. And they need to tell a story that’s as entertaining as the special effects used to convey it.

“Ender’s Game” stars Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley. It was written and directed by Gavin Hood. It will be released on November 1, 2013.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

Bill Moller's picture

My son's going to read this

He’s 14 and loved the book and will watch this movie and afterwards will feel unsatisfied but won’t know why or how to articulate his feelings.

Reading this he’ll better understand how important character development is and a well crafted plot.

Good review.

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