Well first off its not a sequel to 2012's Hunger Games. I normally wouldn't have to point that out at the beginning of a review but some people I've talked to and even some people at the screening for this film thought because it had 'Game' in the title they were from the same franchise. Silly, I know right? Although this film would have benefited from a little Katniss this one has aliens so it's a bit different.
Based on another popular book of the same name Ender's Game is a futuristic tale of Earth's International Military recruiting and training children as soldiers after the planet was attacked by an alien race, known as the Formics, in the year 2083. The film fast forwards 50 years and explains that the reason that Earth's primary defense are child soldiers is that they can process complex thoughts and problems better than adults. Prepping for another potential attack military leaders turn to the young mind of Ender Wiggin to be their new leader and savior.
I guess I'll start off by stating I haven't read the book, so for all you die hard fans looking angrily at my rating above relax, this is a film review not a book report. For all I know the book is masterpiece, but that doesn't mean a film version of it is. However, since the film's director (Gavin Hood) and the book's original author (Orson Scott Card) co-wrote the screen play I am going under the assumption fewer liberties were taken for this adaption.
Ok so the good stuff first. At the core of Ender's Game 's story is strong messages of morality, the ethics of war, and the use of children as soldiers. Regardless of how I thought about the quality of the film it does in fact open a dialogue about some power stuff about human nature that is still relevant even today. Kind of a commentary on a video game age of kids set in realistic conditions. I can't really go into a lot of the specifics without spoiling the film, but the tactics of the warfare used towards the end of the film are probably why this book is still being discussed nearly three decades after its publication. Apparently because of those pivotal moments and the questions they raise is why the US military has kept this book on their required reading syllabus for some of their units after all these years. But one shocking moment at the end of a story doesn't warrant its own movie. You can't M. Night audiences anymore. Its just not cool.
At best this is a tale suited for an hour long Twilight Zone episode. Maybe even an hour of Outer Limits. (Man I miss those shows). There is no 2 hour story here, no grand epic adventure, nothing but flashy visuals to distract you until the film's big reveal at the end. And even then the plot holes are so massive it taints the message its trying to teach audiences. Why does Ender's Game fall short and fall apart, all the same time? Because Hood and Card don't understand the genre they are telling their story in.
At the risk of going on a huge rant about this terrible use of the sci-fi genre I'll try and keep to the main points. The science fiction genre is pretty much exactly as it sounds: its science based fiction. Sure things often get stretched far past what science 'currently' deemed possible and that's when the fiction part comes in. [I say 'currently' because we'll have hoover boards pretty soon and then Back to the Future 2 will be only part sci-fi and part sci-non-fi*.] Ender's Game spends 90% of its running time going along with typical sci-fi conventions only to ignore them all in order for its big finale to make sense. Doing so, it completely under minds not just the character development, but the characters themselves. All the lead up, all the relationships built, and all the backstory given become completely superfluous at the expense of the ending. If Hood and Card wanted make s*** up in order to tell their story use the fantasy genre. If stuff doesn't make sense in it just say its 'magic', give it a weird name and problem solved. Worked for the likes of Tolkien and Rowling didn't it? There a whole other part about the aliens being too primitive to communicate with but yet they still have the superior intellect to travel millions a galaxies with some ultra-sophisticated starships but that's just more ranting from me and I've gone long enough.
Books to box-office is a classic recipe for success in Hollywood. The readers act as an established group of fans and the New York Time's Best Sellers list acts as a studio's barometer for big hits or potential franchises. The Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games series are probably the best recent examples of the paperback to motion picture formula. This popular industry method has proven so effective that most of these book series have or had their film adaptions already in production before the author's, or their readers for that matter, have a chance to finish the literary aspect of this fiction to film transfer. So why is it that a book as popular and successful as Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game taken 28 years to have its big screen adaption? Its because even though the story's main message might still be relevant now, the sci-fi genre grew from what it once was in the 80's so it needed an upgrade. This film could have worked beautifully if the filmmakers understood the genre they were in placing their tale in. Instead audiences are fooled by irrelevant gimmicks throughout the story and then are expected buy into a disconnected message of the human condition because it's a twist ending. I've been M. Night-ed multiple times but never had this bad of a taste in my mouth after.
...that came out wrong
*= I'm coining the term sci-non-fi. You read it here first.
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Andrew Burns loves film and comics, and can be found writing about when those worlds converge. You can follow him on Twitter at @myAndrewBurns.