As difficult as it is, adaptations should be judged by their own merits and not in comparison to their source, especially when that source is a famous and influential one. By this measure, Ender’s Game is a generally agreeable sci-fi popcorn flick, much more likely to be enjoyed by children just discovering the franchise than those who grew to adulthood on it. It’s like a neutered Starship Troopers without the campy satire.
From its streamlined spaceships, perfectly molded interiors and untouched nature (despite a devastating global attack 50 years earlier), director Gavin Hood immediately places the film in the school of impersonal, detached science fiction. The environments are small and contained but rarely narrow or claustrophobic. Even as authorities specifically plan to isolate the characters it’s only a few minutes until the next display of camaraderie. This serves a purpose to the story, and sets Ender’s Game decidedly on the child-friendly spectrum of action movies, with the side effect of cheapening drama. The constant distance from the characters renders even the most emotional scenes as smooth and soft as a padded battle suit.
Tellingly, while the film glosses over all mental or psychological elements, it finds space for several training skirmishes, cramming many in such rapid succession that they become meaningless. The action pieces are brisk, fun and look good, however Ender is so flawless that outcomes are never in doubt. Sure, there’s some satisfaction in seeing how individual battles play, but it’s like watching an athlete’s personal highlight reel; it’s neat to see, while knowing how every play ends.
Visually the film is impressive, from the zero-G sequences to the air and space battles that look more like a real-time strategy game than a first person shooter, there’s a clean and open look that fits the cold, distant mood of the film. The fact that so much attention was spent on creating intricately detailed effects fits the the broad characterization and lack of attention given to anything happening beneath the surface. We’re told that the characters are tired and provided a reason for paranoia, but we never actually see it. There are serious themes of morality, war and sacrifice running throughout that go unexplored and barely acknowledged. Even the most extreme violence, be it personal or galactic, is bloodless.
Ender’s Game does manage to pull off a surprisingly effective ending sequence, signaling such a shift that it redeems much of what came before. Nonetheless, it’s quickly dismissed and by that point most of the audience will be so numb that even the end of the world is sterile. [subscribe2]