in case you didn’t know: I saw Ender’s Game last night! Finally! And since it’s still a few days until November 1st and some of you may still ponder the question whether or not to go see it …. kidding, of course you’re gonna see it, but you may wanna know what to expect, so here is my spoiler-free review! (And with spoiler-free I mean that I’m not gonna tell you any details about the movie. The plot and everything that’s known through trailers and clips already is fair game.)
BTW, if you don’t want to read it all, there is a bottom line at the end!
1. Book v. Movie
Let’s start off with the most pressing questions: How does the movie compare to the book?
I thought it did pretty well in that respect. This is a movie made with book fans in mind, but it’s not a 1:1 translation. It couldn’t be, and this movie makes this very clear, because while it is packed with references to the book, it still leaves you wanting more. There are so many little scenes, so many memorable quotes that they could not fit into this 2 hour movie. Gavin Hood really tried – he even rushed stuff a bit to fit more stuff in – but there are still so many scenes missing that I am now convinced that this book has to be made into a 20-episode-series to do it justice.
But for what it is it does remarkably well. Many things are streamlined, some are simplified, others re-interpreted, still others completely changed to make for a coherent movie that still tells Ender’s story. As I pointed out elsewhere, we will probably not all agree on what that story is. This movie is not trying to incorporate all possible interpretations – it can’t. It is ONE interpretation of the book, Gavin Hood’s, and instead of trying to satisfy everyone he is trying to stay true to what he believes is the essence of Ender’s Game. That is the narrative line he his following systematically, even if it means that he has to leave some most beloved scenes and quotes out.
Characterwise, the focus lies mostly on Ender and, to a lesser degree, Graff. Minor character stories are often even more reduced to make more room for the major characters who tell the major story: Ender’s story – his morality and immorality, his strength and his vulnerability, and ultimately his guilt.
2. Directing and Composition
So how does Gavin Hood do as a screenwriter and director?
As I said, this is a movie for fans, and Gavin Hood tried to put as much of the story in as he could. This is mostly well done, but I have to admit that if I have any beef with this movie, this is where it lies. Because, let’s face it, this movie is rushed and a little too episodic to really achieve smoothness. There were two moments where I thought: “what? how did we get here? shouldn’t X have happened before this?” Ender’s Game could have used at least half an hour more time to establish certain plot points, because the way it is now it sometimes feels like you just blacked out and missed a bit. This gets better towards the end, and while Hood has by no means enough time to completely tell the entire Eros story, he does put in enough of the strenuousness and urgency to make the ending what it is supposed to be.
As a director, he doesn’t take any risks. It’s solidly directed and shot pretty traditionally. Gavin Hood’s great strength lies not in innovative angles or compelling camera movements but in how he directs his actors. Their interactions are uniformally smooth, engaged, and believable, and that is not just the actors’ achivement, but also that of a director who manages to convey to his actors exactly the mood they are supposed to be in, and exactly the things they feel towards the other. This is one of the great strengths of the movie.
The other is the visuals. We already knew they were stunning, and they don’t disappoint on the big screen. There is not a single scene that isn’t absolutely beautiful. The landscapes and space scenery are sublime, everything in space and even on the desks looks 3D without being 3D, and nevertheless completely convincingly real. You literally don’t see the CGI unless you are supposed to see it (like in the mind game). My friend, who is a fan of 1980s and 1990s SciFi movies said it reminded her a lot of the good old times before CGI. She said while it looked totally up to date, it also looked as if all of these things were actual sets, not animated backgrounds.
As for the mind game – I loved it. I understand that that is a matter of taste, but I thought it was pretty damn cool. I wanna play it.
The acting is this movie’s finest feature. Asa Butterfield is solid to excellent – he has very few iffy/unconvincing moments, very many convincing ones (if you don’t notice the acting, it’s good), and some absolutely brilliant ones. His Ender is lovable but prone to violence, more confident than I imagined him (but he is older, plus a drastic character change would not have been believable over this short period of time), but also vulnerable; he has darkness, and yet a fundamentally clear understanding of what is right and wrong. Butterfield portrays him with all those facets – what an actor at 14-15!
Harrison Ford is stellar – engaged, passionate, subtle and complex, even more complex really than Graff in the book. I’d nominate him for an award, but I doubt it will come to pass.
In comparision to these two, the other actors have rather little to do. And yet, everyone without exception excels at their role. And I’m not just saying that because they are all so nice. I was looking for flaws in the acting, and I found very little. I was surprised how even the very small roles (like Enders parens, who each have 2 lines) were totally and utterly believable and natural. Let me mention three major “minor” characters in particular:
Do I really have to mention the score/soundtrack? I love those big, orchestral, slightly bombastic pieces, and here they fit super well. I’m particularly in love with the theme that we hear in Ender’s War and other pieces. I call it Ender’s theme, and I’ve been humming it all day. Daaaaaaaaaaah, daaa deeee daaaa …
BOTTOM LINE : 4 out of 5
I loved this movie. I loved it because it focuses on those parts of the story that I happen to find most important. I loved it because the actors are simply wonderful, and that is usually the most important thing for me. And I loved it because it is the most beautiful movie I’ve seen in a long while (and that includes The Hobbit and Avatar). But I won’t deny that, objectively, there are quite a few things you could complain about, especially if you are the nitpicking kind. I tend not to be a purist. As long as the essence is there, I accept that details change in transition, and that a lot of the more complex elements need to fall by the wayside. The changes that Hood made – and when you think about it, most of them make sense – will probably anger book purist and lead a lot of people to give this movie less credit than it deserves. But if you accept that this is one version, one vision, one interpretation, then you should be fine. People absolutely should give this movie a chance, because despite its shortcomings it has done very many things very right.
Let me know what you think. I’ll gladly answer any and all questions and comments. I’m dying to talk about this movie!
Note: This review is based on the German dubbed version of Ender’s Game, as seen in a regular movie theater.