This is a shameful admission on my part, but I am probably the only sci-fi writer who hasn’t read Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. I don’t have any particular reason: I’ve just never gotten around to reading it. And while that might reflect poorly on me, it does, I think, provide a different perspective on the recently-released film. I walked into it with only a vague notion of what it was about (genius kid battles aliens via video games—wha?), so I approached it with a “fresh set of eyes,” as the saying goes.
So if you’ll indulge me (especially those of you who are long-time Ender fans), I’ll share with you what I liked and didn’t like about the movie. Having never read the book, I’ll just rely on what was presented on the screen, without being able to fall back on “Well, that was explained more/better in the novel.” The only fact about the book that I will touch on from time to time was that it was published in 1985. And, of course, for those newbies like me to the film and the book, there are spoilers.
Ready? Off we go!
What I Liked, and Why
First off, I thought the story was different and compelling. If there were a superhero flick, it’d be considered an “origin movie,” which many fans of that genre find tedious; I was not bored at all during Ender’s Game. No, I was immediately hooked—but then, how can one not be when the film opens with a massive air battle involving what looks like present-day jet fighters vs. alien spacecraft. Yeah, I know I’ve seen that before in Independence Day, but this was already much, MUCH better.
The story just got better from there. Ender’s grueling training and rise through the ranks and schools were effectively portrayed. One would think there are only so many times one could watch a classroom or training sequence and not tire of it, but that was not so. The plot moved quickly, and I was not able to predict where it was going. The climax, where Ender wins what he thinks is a “graduation exercise,” was tense, and I was floored by the reveal that Ender had conducted and won an actual battle against the Formics’ homeworld.
Characterization, dialogue, and acting were excellent all around: I believed in these characters as real people, and cared about what happened to them, even “villains” like Bonzo Madrid. I’ve found that often in sci-fi movies and books, characters often don’t speak like one would expect them to: they usually have a bad habit of mouthing whatever the writer(s) want them to, whether they ought to talk like that or not. This never happens (that I noticed) in EG: kids (even very intelligent ones like Ender) speak like kids, parents speak like parents, military people speak like military people. It adds much-needed verisimilitude to the story. The cast was diverse and had subtleties in their performances that I appreciated.
The premise and settings were interesting and believable: the Formic assault on Earth was a 9/11-type event that killed 10 million people; the shock and fear of another such attack warps Ender’s society even 50 years later. Newscasts replay the attack over and over; the thought of war consumes the minds of the populace. Children are recruited to lead a massive interstellar navy, and there are population controls. Ender’s Earth is not somewhere any of us want to live.
The special effects are amazing, particularly the images of the space battles and the zero-gravity training/game sequences. The kids floating around in their suits look completely natural, like footage you’d see from inside the International Space Station. Costumes and sets are great, as well.
What I Didn’t Like, and Why
There are only a few things to quibble about. A sense of time is one. The pace of the movie is so quick that it’s not long after Sergeant Dap is bellowing that he will never salute Ender that he does, in fact, salute Ender—at least twice, by my count. Also, in one scene, we’re shown that the alien fleet is 28 days from the forward base the humans have established on a former Formic planet, yet after Ender arrives there for Command School-training, he mentions that “months” have gone by. Does he mean since he came to Command School? Or since he started as a cadet? Did the aliens stop advancing on the planet and turn back to defend their homeworld?
The great hero Mazer Rackham appears two-thirds into the movie, but doesn’t do much onscreen beside scowl an awful lot behind his Maori tattoos. Given how horribly wrong Ender’s previous training simulation had ended, the high command takes an incredibly foolish risk in having Ender lead (unbeknownst to him) the actual fleet in a real-life assault on the Formic planet. Who’s to say Ender and his crew—which he describes as “burned out”—wouldn’t have failed miserably that mission, too?
We are told that the aliens came to Earth in search of water, which might have been believeable in 1985, but not in 2013, when we know that water is plentiful throughout the galaxy (indeed, there’s a simulation where the aliens are mining icy asteroids). And my biggest complaint was the depiction of the Formics as giant ants who can conveniently be defeated en masse by killing their queens, not too dissimilar from the Chitauri of last year’s Avengers movie. “Aliens-as-big-bugs” was a cliche even in 1985, when Ender’s Game was published, and it’s a disappointment to find that this modern-day sci-fi classic relies on that tired trope (especially after Aliens and the film version of Starship Troopers). I was, however, pleasantly surprised to discover at the end, alongside with Ender, that the Ants-From-Outer Space are not actually, “bad guys.”
All in all, it was a fantastic movie which I would love to see again. Good pace, great performances, superb effects, and a story that you can absorb and easily understand without having to read the book—a common fault in many a movie drawn from sci-fi or fantasy books. I give it 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.