By Evan Bevins
The Marietta Times
"Ender's Game" brings Orson Scott Card's sci-fi classic novel to visually impressive life, but a good portion of the book's heart and darkness fail to translate to the screen.
Ender is the name given to Andrew Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, "Hugo"), the younger brother of two promising candidates for command positions in the International Fleet, assembled to defend Earth from the threat of the Formics, an insectoid alien species that ravaged the planet years earlier. Where Ender's brother Peter was too vicious and sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin, "Zombieland") too compassionate, Commander Hiram Graff (Harrison Ford) is hoping Ender is the perfect mix of both.
Once Ender's reluctant killer instinct is revealed, Graff fast-tracks him to Battle School, where other youngsters are being trained militarily though a series of games. The dual natures of his siblings become evident as he's forced to battle jealousy from other students and the manipulations of Graff with a combination of merciless tactics and empathetic friendship.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley.
Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Rated: PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.
The games are played out in the battleroom, a zero-gravity arena in which armies face off against one another using light guns to temporarily immobilize their opponents. The battleroom sequences are exceptionally rendered, even if one scene in which Ender channels his inner John Woo goes a bit overboard. It's one of the few areas in the movie that actually expands and even improves upon the source material. Even though the book painted a picture in my mind, it wasn't as vivid as what I saw on the screen.
Some portions of the book inevitably had to be omitted from the script, by director Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), or left on the cutting room floor. The political intrigue and subplots that frame and add layers of depth to the novel work much better in prose than on film - especially when that film promises sci-fi-action spectacle. The cast of characters is necessarily scaled down as well, although sometimes these abbreviations make the movie feel like it's moving a bit too fast.
Even though there are dark moments, the movie does not descend to the depths the book does. That's due in part to the characters being older on film than they were in the novel. Although Ender is young and Butterfield balances that youth with his world-weary maturity well, he's still obviously a teenager. The book follows Ender from age 6 to 11. But when the film was first being discussed, I hoped they wouldn't put actors that young through some of what Ender experienced in the book.
While there are parallels of bullying in the story, Ender and the other Battle School children are struggling at a far more visceral level. Games or not, they're being trained to kill, and it's hard to separate that from what in a normal school would be childish rivalries and fights. Ender's violence, though never enjoyed, is much more decisive - and disturbing - in the book.
I keep referencing the book, which takes away, somewhat unfairly, from the movie. I think people who haven't read the source material will find the film entertaining, suspenseful and even moving (not that I didn't). But some parts, like Graff's interactions with Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis, "The Help") felt a little forced, at least to me. Maybe they're not as noticeable if you're not thinking about the backstory that isn't being told.
In both book and movie, the seldom-seen aliens are an important component of the story, but hardly the focus. The real drama comes from children forced into situations that even their advanced intelligence and training can't fully prepare them for, and the question of whether the ends justify the means, even when you're talking about the survival of the entire human race.
The movie explores this themes reasonably well, but if you want to dive in deep, I'm going to have to refer you to the book.