08 November 2013

FWS Movie Review: ENDER'S GAME (2013)

The next couple of years are going to see more military science fiction works coming to the big screen, and one of the bigger names in this trend is Ender's Game. The journey of this award-winning MSF novel has been a long one, mainly because Orson Scott Card was very protective over the film rights. In interviews, he openly said that he was concerned on how Hollywood would treat his work, and to avoid some of the evils of the studio system and how they have treated novels over the years. According to Card, Hollywood has been making offers on his book for years, and up until recently, Card refused. What changed? In 2003, Card wrote several screenplays for the novel to appeal to those that had not read the novel, and by 2009, all seemed in readiness, and moved quickly towards production and release. On a personal note, I read Ender's Game about two years ago for the first time, after buying the book when Borders was closing down. I was unimpressed with the book as a whole, finding it uneven with a overly complex plot for the material, and there were odd elements that should have been eliminated. Much like Minority Report and BLADE RUNNER, the movie could be better, in the general, to the book. Is Ender's Game such a film? Will it be more Blade Runner than Starship Troopers? I saw this on Friday, November 8th, at an AMC theater in Dallas in standard, but not IMAX  or IMAX 3D...didn't have the time.

The Movie Plot
In 2086, aliens invade the planet Earth, and while they were driven back into space, we paid a high price for that victory against these insect aliens. Millions dead, the soul of humanity scarred and twisted, while everyone waited for the next invasion. Many years later, the next generation that has no memory of the invasion is being tested for their ability to aid the International Fleet in their goal of protecting Earth from another invasion. The whole of Terran society seems bend on never letting that happen again. Andrew Ender Wiggin is a third child in a world of birth limits, but his mind as allowed him to be educated at an elite military academy because he shows promise. But all it not well. His older brother is a future serial killer, and his doe-eyed sister is his only friend. After a brutal fight in school, he is taken away to the orbital training school for the International Fleet, and thus, Ender's future and all of humanity's, begins.  


Ender's Game is a beautiful film with well thought out production design and special effects. Even some attention paid to realistic design of objects in space. This movie could give Oblivion a run for its money in terms of a sci-fi film that is appealing to the eye and ear. This realistic design nature is also seen in the more conventional launch of the shuttles, which was nice to see. However, while the film is pretty to look at, it is the power of Asa Butterfiled's performance as Ender that will truly amaze you. He nails the character in all his complexities. This is also true of of much of the rest of the cast, who (for the most part) turn in performances close to the original text. For most of us that read the novel, the element that had to be done correctly was the scenes involving the battle-room. Not only are these key events in the novel, but most of us just wanted to see this zero-gee combat room come to life on the big screen like we had imagined them. This film gets those scenes dead-on with impressive and brilliant special effects. While the amount of Battle-Room scenes in the movie are much less than the novel, the three battle-room scene are really stunning and carefully crafted to integrate later during the fleet combat scenes.
In terms of plot and pacing, this film is not slow, and attempts to high the major points of the book. Those who have read the 1985 novel will be pleasantly surprised that much of the book's major plot elements surrounding Ender and the war with the Formics are all there. One element that I was shocked to see was the mind game that Ender plays...didn't expect that. What really working in the film for me, which was less pronounced in the book, was the morality of using children to plan and wage war against these aliens. Touches throughout the film speak to the mindset of Earth and what emotion scars the Formic Invasion had on the collective consciousness of humanity. From Ender's Father, to propaganda posters, to Graff's character, all give a foundation to the actions of the Fleet and Ender. The film asked important question about how war changes us, and how much we are willing to commit to victory. One thing I was grateful for in the film was that is not the next Hungrer Games. Some have claimed that if done correctly, Ender's Game could become the next Hunger Games. Personally, I hated that fucking movie, and rolled my eyes when websites attempted to link these works and their film adaptations. Overall, this is a solid adaptation that enhanices the original text, and does not destroy it


Ender's Game attempts to tell the story of the novel, and the filmmakers were hellbent committed to that goal, even if it meant running over some scenes and the overall story. Most of the supporting characters, including Ender's family are mere set pieces, that is also true of his Battle-Room battles. There are only two scene in the film, while the book devotes page and page on it and the importance of the games to the society of the station. No more is the warp-speed pacing seen in damaging effect than during a key moment in the book as well as the film...when Ender leaves Battle-School and hides out a lake house. In desperation, Graff brings Ender's sister to convince him to rejoin the school and the war effort. The film simply does not pull it off, the acting, writing, and setup are all broken, and feels like when you grid a gear. I just preyed that the movie moved on and we got back into space. This film does captures some fantastic performances by Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis (who I loved in The Help) but features some bad performances by the child actors that orbiting around Ender and his life at the battle-school. Some are so ham-fisted that they come off as comical.


There are three elements that are ugly in Ender's Game. The primary ugliness is due to the rocket-speed pace of the film. While they did cram every major plot element of the book, they also wiped out some of the emotions, making the movie hollow and cold. It reminds me of the Tour de France. Those riders are racing through one of the most beautiful counties on Earth, and they are laser-focused on meeting those objectives that they pay little attention to the beauty passing before them. The only times that emotion really comes into play was the last few minutes, after the big battle, during the conversion between Graff and Ender, and it really brings things home.
The last two ugly elements of Ender's Game comes from the character of Mazer Rackham, hero of the first invasion. Changing some elements of a novel for a visual experience is common and required, however when it comes to Mazer Rackham having facial tattoos I was left speechless. I thumbed through my copy of Ender's Game came up dry with the text character  did not resembling Queequeg from Moby Dick! While the film does directly explain it and uses a title of one of the sequels of Ender's Game, it is still unneeded, along with his accent. Also unneeded is the performance of Sir Ben Kingsley. Normally, he is one of the best actors working in the film industry today, and even in Slipstream he turned in a memorable performance, but not here.

How Does the Movie Compare to the Book?
In certain rare examples, movies can be better then original text, take BLADE RUNNER for example, and I wasn't a fan of 1985 novel. For me, the film adaptation of Ender's Game could smooth out the rough and odd portions of the novel. Ender attended the space-based battle-school from age 6 to 12 that is in Earth's orbit, the same location as in the novel, however, in the film spends only one year in the school. Then he is shipped of to Command School at an inter-solar system asteroid. However, in the film changes locations, but does work very well. One of the elements I hated in the book and found unrealistic was Ender's siblings, Peter and Valentine, subplot, and it is completely deleted from the film...thankfully. That is the main difference, the focus of the film over the book. Nothing is mentioned about Ender's family for the most part after he enters Battle-School, along with the political situation back on Earth that took many pages in the book along with the aftermath of victory in the war. The movie is solely locked on the plight of Ender Wiggin and how event unfolded around him, and no one else.

Should You See Ender's Game?
There was little question that I would be seeing Ender's Game, after what good would a blog about military science fiction be without an Ender's Game review, right? I think if you are a fan of sci-fi or the book itslef, than see it, especially in 3D or IMAX. The film does tell the tale of Ender Wiggin, and his progression from child to commander with beautiful visuals and a great performance by Asa Butterfield as Ender. This film does respect the original text, and attempts to bring it to life, not alter it beyond recognition. One of the best elements of the film that will stay with you, is the film;s questions about morality of using children to achieve genocide of Earth's enemy and how different characters treat the subject. This is hammered home, and seen in the broken soul of Ender at the end of the film. However, If you are not much for sci-fi, than I say skip it, there is not much here for you.


  1. Enders Game... sounds like they managed to improve on the book by cutting the ridiculous subplots, but I'm not surprised that it has its flaws. At least they removed that absurd subplot about Ender's siblings taking over international politics via social media. Gaah.

    One thing the film couldn't fix is that Ender's Game expects us to buy that all the top brass can't figure out that there is an up and down to space, thus the entire command of Earth's space fleets must be put in the control of a grade-school kid. Oh geez, he put his ships under the enemy, Harrison Ford would never have thought of that... nope, not ever.

    I suspect that most naval commanders would grasp this concept in a fairly short amount of time, even historical ones who might think that spaceships must have been built by magic and manned by demons.

    All that said I'll probably see the movie anyway, ha ha.

    Cause, you know, when the aliens invaded, we weren't ready for a whole insect civilization to come across the light-years howling for the posterior of every suitable human on Earth. Only the heroic actions of Mazer Rackham, who flew his damaged fighter up the vulnerable posterior of the alien mothership and buggered 'em back, drove them back out into space... but we know that they have a have a woody for every choir boy on Earth and they'll be back to finish what they begun, one day...

    I'm betting they didn't refer to the Formics as the "buggers" in the movie, not once during the whole script. :D Heh heh.

    By the way, are you going to review Oblivion sometime? I really liked that movie, it was a lot of fun... even though the reason for the alien invasion doesn't really wash. If I were making a SF comedy I'd have the evil aliens stop their starship at Sol to steal some water... and land on Pluto. XD

  2. Ha! No buggers! Yeah...they didn't use that term for the aliens, just Formics. One thing did bother me about the film looking back...it would work better if the International Fleet was nothing more drone control by Ender and the rest of the kids...why were those ships manned? If the kids were controlling the fleet, then why go through the expense? And what commander would accept some of the orders that Ender and the Brat Pack ordered? I agree with you, it seems that the IF brass would out of ideas, and space confused them...odd, I guess it is film logic.
    One thing the film improved was the oddball and uncomfortable relationship that Ender had with his sister...gross.
    When I think of Pluto and aliens, I always think back to the Gamilons from Starblazers, who used Pluto to bombard Terra with their radiation bombs. Now, looking back on...why Pluto? Way too far out!
    Often my reviews are the least popular blogposts on FWS...I don't know if my reviews just suck, or that sense the internet is packed with other reviews, that people just don't come to FWS for that. I missed the boat on Oblivion in the cinema, and bought on DVD, and much like you, I enjoyed it without thinking about it too hard. I originally was going to write up a review, but I worried that the blogpost would fall on deaf ears. I do think it is one of most haunting sci-fi films since 2002's Solaris. I've watched a few times, and I enjoy it each time, despite my hatred for Tom Cruise's personal life, I mostly enjoy his films.

  3. Yeah, thought so... I've wondered where the name Formic was mentioned in Ender's Game, because I only ever saw characters refer to the aliens as "buggers". Possibly it was mentioned once, and just slipped past me? I only knew the aliens were Formics 'cause that was what was mentioned on the back of the book.

    Probably the ships were not drones because people were needed to be around to fix things and be responsible for the day-to-day running of the vessels. Ender seemed to be operating as an admiral, who sees the "big picture" and directs the motions of entire fleets rather than worrying about operating single vessels- which is the responsibility of captains. Didn't Ender start directing the motions of ships that weren't under his direct control with verbal orders in the book? Still, I agree, instantaneous FTL remote-control would greatly improve possibilities for removing the crew from a space warship.

    Honestly, though, that book was not well thought out.

    The problem with alien invasions is that there isn't really anything here worth crossing the void to get that can't be found in many other places in the sol system/local bubble/galaxy, possibly in greater abundance with no pesky natives to coerce. Centauri Dreams ran a two-part post that touched on this a while ago, titled "Why Do We Fear Aliens" by Larry Klaes, and Atomic Rockets covers this in "Planetary Attack" under Space War.

    And yet, for some reason, movies just love to show aliens invading Earth to drain all the water... even though it is one of the most common substances "out there", just not in liquid form outside the CHZ and certain moons of gas giant planets. I suspect that the writers of these films confused the definition of the CHZ being the only zone where liquid water can exist on planetary surfaces as implying that water is not present elsewhere.

    I don't think your reviews suck. Probably it is that the net is packed with reviews and people tend to come to FWS for topics on future warfare, not reviews. Historical stuff, too. Personally, I always look forward to the "ships of the line" posts!

    By the way, have you thought about doing a "ships of the line" post on Planet Killers?

  4. I agree that Ender's Game was not well thought, and from the way that film projects it, Ender and company, are controlling the warships.I plan on writing a blogpost on aliens coming for our water, because it is one of the most common themes of future wars.
    I've got a ship of the line blogpost about Heavy Cruiser incoming in about three weeks...and I will add Planet Killers! Thanks for the suggestion!
    Thanks for the positive comments about my reviews...I was worried about how low the page-views and comments were about the FWS Review section...

  5. Perhaps you should put "aliens coming for water" in a larger post on reasons for space invasions, covering basic ones like resources and planet-grabbing all the way up to ideological ones like "destroy the infidels!!" or "gotta collect 'em all!!" I suspect a lot of writers just concentrate on what happens during and after an invasion than on finding plausible reasons for one...

    Heavy cruisers, that will be an interesting one. Oh, and there is a good essay on planet killers at Stardestroyer.net, with a list of examples from the real world and SF (the real-world examples are asteroid impacts and cobalt bombs), which you might find useful...


    I found out about the oddball Canadian/German SF show LEXX from that essay... recently watched the first season and loved it. Don't forget the Lexx and its predecessor, Foreshadow, when you hunt for examples of planet killers- Lexx is the most powerful weapon of destruction in the two universes, after all!

  6. Yup the film (didn't read the book) was quite illogical in some things, but as a "no-brainer" (except use of children in warfare) it wasn't bad...although I would personally welcome more scenes and explanation of strategy in space combat...
    And those scenes probably really stand out in 3D (unfortunately, no-one yet made 3D for "one eyed" people like me....).

    And Will, don't stop with reviews as some of us take inspiration on what to see/read/etc. from here ;)

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