Movie Review: Ender’s Game


Spoiler alert: I tried to be careful, but this is a review of a movie based on a best-seller. If you have already read the book, there won’t be any surprises here.

Ender's Game movie poster

Took the whole family to see Ender’s Game last night, IMAX-style. I have been waiting for this movie for more than 20 years. I read the book around 1990 when my then-future brother-in-law casually recommended it. I had no idea who Orson Scott Card was, I had never heard of this book, and the plot twist at the end caught me completely and totally off-guard. In short, I was utterly blown away.

In subsequent years, I followed OSC’s career very closely and read everything I could get my hands on. I own many hardcover first editions of his books because I could not wait for the library to get their copy and I certainly could not wait for the paperbacks.

Because boy did he make me think! I’ve struggled with the fact that some of his books are soooo good and others are soooo bad… I’ve tried to figure out what the heck does it mean to be Mormon and how does that play into his writing… I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to understand his views on gay marriage and pondered whether it’s ok to appreciate the art of someone whose politics you despise…

But eventually there came a time when I began to feel a bit BDTD with respect to Mr. Card. He writes the same story over and over again, and I don’t mean just literally, although that is literally what he did with his “parallel” novels about Bean etc. But I mean that even in the books with vastly different settings, e.g. Alvin Maker, Nafai, etc., he is still writing the same basic story, wrestling with the same themes, creating characters with the same voices & choices. For many years that was ok with me because I like those stories, those themes, those voices & choices, you know? But more recently I’ve just become less interested: Thanks, OSC, we get it.


Anyway, the movie

Hm. This isn’t the post I meant to write. I was going to talk about the movie, not my history of ups and downs with Mr. Card. But I do feel that my status as former fangirl plays into my feelings about the movie too. Because as much as I may be BDTD with OSC, I was SO EXCITED TO SEE THIS MOVIE!

Aaaaaaand, it was just about what I expected. Namely:

Amazing special effects. As a big budget film I knew the battle room would be awesome. I knew it would be the coolest thing ever to see their desks, the Giant’s Drink, the simulators, their outfits, the hook, the buggers… And it was, oh yes it was. Especially in the IMAX theater. The Battle Room was a little disorienting actually. I had to keep reminding myself that the enemy gate was down, haha.

Great casting. In fact the acting was even better than I expected. Many of the characters looked perfect for their parts, especially Bonzo, Mazer Rackham, Peter. The boy who played Ender was fabulous, and I really didn’t mind that he was so much older than he is in the book. Also thought Harrison Ford was perfect.

Poor pacing. I expected this because the book itself is pretty tightly constructed. Clearly they would have to cut stuff to make a 90-minute movie, but when everything in the book is so essential what do you cut? Well mostly what they did was compress the training time, which was very disappointing. You don’t get the sense that they have been up there for several years. You don’t feel that gradually increasing sense of urgency as Dragon Army’s schedule gets tougher and tougher, because they only showed one battle. And you don’t see the connection between the tactics & strategy he learns in Battle School and how he uses those skills, um, later.

Another disappointment was how they compressed Ender’s experience with the Giant’s Drink. You don’t get the sense of him playing it over and over and over again, obsessing over it, as his frustration gradually mounts until finally, well, you know, the thing he does.

Liberties taken. There were remarkably few, actually. I was very relieved that they didn’t add in a romance between Ender & Petra. There were some “reveals” that happened in a different order but that was ok, probably necessary. I wasn’t expecting to actually see you-know-who, but whatever, they did a nice job making her look both scary & beautiful — exactly as she should be.

The central themes of Ender’s Game

Everything I said above has to do with the icing on the cake of the movie. The special effects, the actors, plot details, etc. But when you get right down to it, Ender’s Game, like all great sci-fi, is a novel of ideas. It is an exploration of whether there can be a just war, the meaning of genocide, moral responsibility, and forgiveness. These ideas are much further developed in the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, but they are at the core of Ender’s Game as well.

These themes are brought out to a certain extent in the movie, but they could have been a lot more. Two things in particular were missing that would have done much to make the moral ambiguity explicit.

First, the ansible. Briefly mentioned in the movie, but with no explanation or discussion of its significance, the ansible is the device that allows for instantaneous communication through time and space. It is what allows the kids to conduct the battle in real time even though they are light years away from the battlefield. And where did humans get this technology? From the buggers. Think about that.

And second, the Hive Queen. The central fact of the novel is that killing drone workers (the buggers) is not like killing humans. For the Hive Queen, losing one of her drone ships is like clipping a fingernail. She has NO IDEA that when she kills human fighters she is killing a unique sentient creature every time. When Ender makes her understand this, she is appalled. To understand one’s enemy is to love them, and a very profound love and forgiveness develops between Ender and the Hive Queen. This is hinted at in the movie, but not nearly enough. And that is a shame.