Ender’s Game

Ender's Game photo starrating-2stars.jpgIt’s hard to believe this is the story that has inspired generations of readers since its publication in 1985. Orson Scott Card‘s novel has won a host of awards. The text has even become recommended reading for military organizations including the United States Marine Corps. But this is a review of the film, not the book itself. As far as the adaptation is concerned, it’s largely a colossal bore.

The plot is a young-adult fantasy about pupils trying to prove themselves and move through the ranks in some teen military academy. Battle School is an organization designed by the International Fleet to indoctrinate new recruits into their service. This is your standard issue sci-fi combat and it’s pretty generic. If you’ve seen any movie with a space war in it, you’ve seen this. However because of their age, Solarbabies is the reference that kept popping up in my head. It’s a fairly obscure 1986 sci-fi that would be all but forgotten if it hadn’t starred a collection of well-known young actors (Jami Gertz, Jason Patric, Lukas Haas). It was poorly received, but even that film is better than this.

There are others, but here are 3 reasons why the movie fails:

1.) Asa Butterfield exhibits zero charisma as Ender Wiggin. He’s cold, emotionless and expressionless. I’m shocked that a big budget, major Hollywood motion picture would be built around an actor that registers as such a non-entity. Perhaps those are the qualities that make him a success in battle, but it is a complete drag to endure as the star of a movie. Apparently we’re told this young, gifted boy was created for his superior abilities. So it becomes highly ironic when this brilliant, one of kind virtuoso doesn’t see the “big twist” when it happens to him. For the record, it immediately occurred to me our young protagonist commences preparations for his combat training. No I haven’t read the book.

2.) There is a lot of unintentional comedy here. Harrison Ford’s line readings are rather amusing. He acts like he’s merely auditioning for the part. Oh and he’s in a grouchy mood because he’s been asked to do that. Moises Arias plays a pint sized colleague named Bonzo. He is significantly shorter than everyone else. I assume he’s meant to be a threatening presence because he carries himself with all the swagger of The Rock. But with his tiny frame – he looks to be 5 feet tall – it’s difficult to take him seriously. Think Marvin the Martian. “This makes me very angry, very angry indeed.” I found his misdirected anger toward Asa Butterfield hilarious. Their interactions come across like some mock argument in a bad soap opera. At one point he walks into the showers where young Ender, naked obviously, is washing himself. Bonzo demands to fight right then and there. I was waiting for Ender to respond “Do you mind if I get dressed first?” He gets to put on a towel at least. Awkward.

3.) The saga lacks suspense. Young Ender’s chronicle has absolutely no dramatic tension whatsoever. It doesn’t help when his superiors keep telling him right at the outset that he’s their savior. Shouldn’t he come to learn that? I didn’t understand why they needed the other “launchies” when Ender is clearly the favored one in the class. Over and over, time and again, he surpasses one test after another with apparent ease. Getting the respect of his fellow recruits, outsmarting a video game, commanding his peers through a simulation – he exceeds all challenges with little to no effort.

Ender’s Game looks good but it fails at a basic level, to be interesting. Uninvolving characters and a tedious story do not an entertaining film make. I’ll give it points for the unintentional comedy. I laughed out loud several times.  In the last 30 minutes it becomes sort of a cautionary tale at least. It questions the morality of launching a pre-emptive attack on a docile opponent in order to prevent future attacks. But the majority of the movie has nothing to do with that. It’s 114 minutes of watching Ender triumph at doing everything he’s already expected to succeed at. If you want bad teen sci-fi, just rent Solarbabies instead and skip this bore.

30 Responses to “Ender’s Game”

  1. I had thought that this movie was going to be a remake of the Hunger Games (in space), but I was mistaken. It ended up being ten times worse! Not worse than Hunger Games because that happened to be good, but… you know what I mean. Great review! I’m glad I read it before wasting my money! Always a pleasure to read, as well.


  2. Good review. I was a more muted in my condemnation of this flick, but the prime issue is that the creator’s lose the book’s political intrigue (in the book, the military does not advertise it’s intent to launch a preemptive strike). It also loses it’s characters, which renders the film emotionless.


  3. Y’know Mark, I was just telling someone a minute ago on my blog that I have no interest at all in seeing this, it just doesn’t appeal to me for some reason. Well, based on your review, I’m not missing much, ahah.


    • The film has gotten pretty mediocre reviews. However I’ve noticed a tendency amongst my peers that have read and love the book, to favor this film. I suspect there are subtleties in the story that are not apparent to filmgoers unfamiliar with the text. Seems like a film for people already predisposed to like it. Therefore I think your decision is a wise one.


  4. GaryLee828 Says:

    This movie “looks good”? What trailer were you watching!? lol.

    Everything you pointed out about how bad it is, was everything I could tell by the terrible previews. This just looks sooooo bad. Makes “After Earth” look like a masterpiece.

    The only thing I wondered was why Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley climbed in and rolled around in this giant, dirty diaper; Harrison Ford I can understand…but those 2 typically do quality films.


    • You misread that line. The way the film looks: special effects, cinematography, the visual presentation of a foreign world, is done very well.


      • GaryLee828 Says:

        Oh okay! LOL. You’re saying the visuals were good. Okay.

        Stop by my blog when you have a minute and check out my entry on the original “Carrie”. lol.


  5. Hmm. Sounds very disappointing. :-/ But now I want to see Solarbabies! Lol


    • I know you’re kidding, but that got me curious. I looked it up on Amazon.com and it IS available on DVD. Kind of surprised because it’s not a popular film

      Incidentally in the editorial reviews, Amazon.com writes, “Paying homage to both The Road Warrior and The Lost Boys…”

      Um Solarbabies came out in November 1986. The Lost Boys debuted a year later in summer 1987. How can a movie pay respect to a picture that hadn’t even been released yet? LOL


  6. I love your reviews, but I REALLY love the ones that make me laugh, like this one did. I wasn’t planning to see Ender’s Game, and apparently it’s even worse than I’d feared.

    P.S.: Do you know of any good art movies out? I’d like to go see an art movie sometime within the next three weeks, since I have tickets to a Philly theater.


    • Well I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard great things about Dallas Buyers Club.

      I’d also recommend 12 Years a Slave because I think it’s going to be huge come awards season.


      • Thanks. Do you read filmcomment? They have fourteen films listed as Oscar contenders. I’ve only seen two of them–Captain Phillips and Gravity!


      • I haven’t seen that list, but I’d love to. Do you have a link?


      • I actually have it right in front of me:
        All is Lost
        Before Midnight
        Blue Jasmine
        Captain Phillips
        Inside Llewyn Davis
        The Invisible Woman
        Much Ado about Nothing
        12 Years a Slave
        The Wind Rises


      • With predictions it’s a guessing game, but that list has forgotten some pretty major films: American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Saving Mr. Banks, The Butler, August: Osage County, Fruitvale Station, Dallas Buyers Club.

        I’d add my suggestions to the ones you already have. 🙂


      • I think American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Fruitvale Station, and Dallas Buyers Club have a chance. I’d love Scorsese to win though…and I’d love to make it the first of his I see in theaters. (Seen EVERYTHING he’s directed, and a documentary, but none in theaters. Bizarre.)


  7. After reading your review and some of the other comments, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I liked this. I expected a sci fi movie with kids, so I set my mind to “adolescent”. And that’s what I got. I did like the lead character, I felt he needed to be more mature, so I didn’t expect warmth. He was leading a serious war. Like a sargeant in an army, they are all dead serious. It was fun. 3 stars.


  8. I didn’t care for Ender’s Game either, though I thought it was fairly enjoyable as a basic sci-fi movie. Its shortcomings are numerous though, and that can’t be argued. I agree with Ruben above. I’d give it 3 stars… average at best, but not horrible.

    (if anyone is interested in watching my review: http://papakennmedia.com/2013/11/enders-game-movie-review/)


    • There’s just too many genuinely great movies I’d rather watch. (Gravity and Captain Phillips are recent examples) I think the public felt the same way. It didn’t even make as much as After Earth.


  9. I just saw this last night with no expectations and having never read the book… and I kind of liked it. I’m surprised how much you didn’t like it. I liked how all the kids actually looked like kids, with acne and awkward peach fuzz facial hair. Strange that you didn’t like Moises Arias’ character, I thought he pulled off the Napoleon complex bully well, and I enjoyed how they never specifically referred to him being short either. Also, Haillee Steinfeld was great in that she didn’t conform to the usual Hollywood standard of beauty, she looked like a ‘real’ teen to me, not layered in makeup (unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity who somehow managed to look unrealistically flawless).

    Regarding Harrison Ford, I really enjoyed his performance. It’s probably the best role I’ve seen him in a decade.

    There were a couple of easy to read moments, like when the drill instructor says “I’ll never salute you” (gee, I wonder if he’ll be saluting Ender by the end of the film?) and I guessed the twist, but overall I enjoyed my two hours watching this.


    • Ford’s best performance in a decade? Well he was just in 42 this year. He was infinitely better in that. But even watching him play Indiana Jones again in 2009 was more enjoyable than this.


      • Ok, in a decade was perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but I had no problems with his performance in this.

        I have to admit I still haven’t seen Crystal Skull, though I’ve pretty much absorbed the major points of the film through the internet.


  10. I’m way behind on your reviews, so I’m playing catch up. I think one of the main reasons why you feel the way you do about this film is because you haven’t read the book. There are so many insights, especially about the story that would make more sense to you if you knew the book. Given the medium, the film just doesn’t have time to explore all of them, and some of the methods to its “madness” are lost in translation. Bean for instance grew up on the streets by himself, so that’s why he has some of the swagger you’re referring to.

    Ender’s somewhat cold, disconnectedness is definitely part of the book., He’s not only isolated by his commanding officers, but his personality itself mostly prevents others from truly connecting with him too. I wasn’t in love with Butterfield as a casting choice, however I thought he was serviceable to that end. Part of the reason Ender doesn’t see the twist coming is that he’s so wrapped up in the next battle/victory that he doesn’t have time to think ahead. By the story’s end he truly is exhausted, almost at the breaking point, something the movie doesn’t do a great job of showing.

    As its own entity, I don’t think the film is anything to write home about, but as an adaptation it actually does a pretty good job bringing what could be a really high concept (especially the battle room) to life in a way that makes sense. I’m a fan of the book obviously, yet there are certainly things about this adaptation that I hate. A lot of dialogue that makes sense in the book and sounds right, comes out really stupid in the film, especially the expression “Ho, Ender.” Also the ending was just awful (not like the book’s), and the narration was a super lazy way to handle exposition. On the whole, I still consider it at least a B/B- worthy adaptation.


    • Appreciate the long and thoughtful take on this film, Evan. Your reaction is representative of most bloggers I’ve read. However the poor box office tells the story of a flop. It did even worse internationally, which is a rarity for a sci-fi film (John Carter & Oblivion did significantly better overseas for example). Perhaps Ender’s Game will take off on video.


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