It should be said that Ender’s Game is not a bad movie. Divorced from Orson Scott Card’s misbehavior and expectations, it’s an entertaining enough film. It won’t embarrass anyone. But it serves too many masters and has too many problems to break through and become something great.
It’s Too Calculated
Ender’s Game, as a book, is popular in middle and high schools because it’s the ultimate teenager fantasy; the adults not only discover that the teenagers really do know better than they do, they put them in charge. And this movie knows it, but fails to deliver on that without being annoying.
Part of the problem here is that you can feel Lionsgate hoping they’ve got another Hunger Games or Harry Potter on their hands, and trying to cater to that. After all, they’re both massive hits, so this should totally appeal. From frame one, this movie struggles with a split identity; is it going to try and develop the themes of the book and be more for adults, or is it going to be a dumb action movie for tween boys? Ultimately, it can’t decide, so both aspects are half-baked. This does have the pleasant side effect of his siblings being mostly excised from the film, at least.
It doesn’t help that Ender isn’t a hero. Asa Butterfield, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from the more sociopathic aspects of Ender’s personality, but he’s not playing the space hero the movie wants, but rather the homicidal abuse victim Ender Wiggin would actually be. The end result, especially with Harrison Ford’s one-note grumpy performance, is that you’ve got a movie where likeable characters are rare and they get stomped a lot.
It’s Too Close To The Book
Fans of the book will be happy with this version. It’s basically the book on film, although it focuses solely on the Battle School and Command School and largely relegates the larger universe to the background, which is where it belongs. For everyone else, though, that’s a pretty serious problem.
Ender’s not sympathetic for much of the film, and, to be fair, he’s really not supposed to be. As much as I dislike the book, it does deserve credit for pointing out the reality that often militaries have to kill their own people, and the gap between military exercises and attacking the enemies can be enormous in terms of emotional consequences. That’s why Ender’s strategies work, but it’s creepy when the kid talks about overwhelming superior force and throws his friends under the bus.
Furthermore, his sudden discovery of his actually liking other human beings wasn’t remotely convincing in the book and it’s even less so here. Ender feels bad for the people he killed because otherwise he’s the bad guy. The movie tries to pull a clumsy fast one with this and fails.
It’s Too Lacking In Stakes
Most of the book is, essentially, Ender playing video games and extreme sports, and thus most of the movie is… Ender playing video games and extreme sports. While the Battle School sequences have some engaging stuntwork and CGI, the movie fails to establish any stakes; we know Ender’s not going anywhere and we’re rooting for the kid to get his ass handed to him. And he doesn’t really seem to like anybody else, so mostly it’s like watching somebody you know will get dumped at the finish line run a gauntlet.
The result is that it’s a very disconnected and dispassionate experience; nobody else seems to give a crap, so why should we? It doesn’t help that the movie doesn’t explain the rules of the simulations and the geography of the action scenes is a mess.
Ender’s Game isn’t a bad movie, really, but it’s just not a memorable or engaging one. Fans will enjoy it, or at least be relieved it finally arrived, but the rest of us won’t find much in it for us.