Ender’s Game Review – The Way We Win Matters

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I went to the theatre for the first time in almost a year to go and see Ender’s Game. It has been a long time staple of the classic science fiction genre and has been a long-awaited film adaptation. Let me put a few caveats out there for fans of the books: I have not read any of the books yet so this review is only based on the film itself and not a comparison to the books. I also don’t play politics in my reviews, so I am not going to get into a debate about the author’s personal views. Remember that boycotting a film doesn’t just hurt the author (which is your point) but also the young actors and actresses who poured their hearts into these roles.

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The Story

The story itself has many elements similar to other science fiction: a not so distant future where Earth was nearly destroyed and humanity nearly extinct from an alien invasion. They were saved by a lone commander who destroyed the enemy carrier and is now the hero that our new recruits aspire to. The new and interesting approach is that the new recruits are not adults, but children who train their entire young lives to join the I.F. in order to help fight the next ‘imminent’ invasion. The main character is the bullied, lonely but genius Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin.

Ender is groomed as the next great commander who will win their war against the bugs. Throughout the film Ender is bullied, beat down, and had the world asked of him all for the sake of doing something that would inevitably destroy him morally. Ender does make friends along the way and forms a tight group who end up helping him succeed where so many others have failed.

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The story has many political and sociological statements that come out amide a science fiction back drop. The first is the idea of big brother and the revoking of your privacy rights. As a young recruit you are implanted with a monitoring device which allows the government to watch your every move, thought and action. After the first war with the bugs, the governments of the world felt privacy was no longer your right in the war to prevent the next invasion. They also implement the idea of a third child is a big no, not only for population control but to conserve resources. Ender was a third child, leading to even more bullying among his peers and his own brother Peter.

The second implication of the story is the use of child soldiers and the social pressure to fight in an aggressive and very adult world at such a very young age. Each child is subjected to extreme physical training, that many adults would fail. They are also subjected (whether known or not) to a huge array of mind games to gauge strategic and decision-making skills among the recruits.

When the story concludes (and we are not going to spoil it here), the characters are broken in so many ways you really do feel for them when it’s over. That speaks volumes not just to the directing of the film but to the actors who played the various characters in the film.

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Strong Performances

There are several veteran actors in this film who actually seem to have found their perfect fit for the first time in a while. I speak specifically of Harrison Ford who plays Colonel Graff. Ford comes off commanding and confident in his assessment of Ender and his ability to be the next commander. Ford has been in a lot of different films the past few years but this is the first time that I felt like I was seeing the Indiana Jones version of Ford back on our screen again. Because of that, his character came off smooth and unfiltered in its performance.

The other veteran actress with a real solid base in this film is Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson. As the military shrink, if you will, her job is to not only judge the mental state of each recruit but to help them pick up the pieces after the fighting is over. After all, these are just kids who are being trained to become weapons.

The youngsters of the film were by far the main focus on the story and had more screen time than the veterans. The leading roles were played by Hailee Steinfeld (Petra), Abigail Breslin (Valentine), Aramis Knight (Bean), Suraj Partha (Alai), Moises Arias (Bonzo), and Brandon Soo Hoo (Fly Molo). Now all of them played well for their age in a film and a script that is very much a more adult and creepy story than most. The relationships between Wiggin and the others is like many of Ender’s other friendships in the past: non-existent, teasing and confrontational. However, as Ender taps into his intellect and rage, the team starts to fall in line behind their new leader.

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To that end, the star performance (not because he is the lead character) is Asa Butterfield. Butterfield first caught my eye in the BBC series Merlin as the young Mordred with those deep piercing blue eyes. In Ender’s Game, he struggles at first to come across as a hurt boy who is just trying to stay out of trouble. When Ender’s rage and empathy comes out, thats where Asa really shines on screen. Showing emotion on a whim is not an easy task for even a seasoned actor, but Asa pulls it off with ease and in the final moments of the film, truly moves the audience in his empathy and remorse over what just happen.

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Amazing Visuals – The Battle Room

Whats a good science fiction film without some great visual effects. Some films go for the shiny science fiction future look in a gritty world and it just doesn’t play well and turns the audience off (Star Wars Ep I-III). The entire point of the visual effects is to help bring the audience so far into the story that they feel like they are in the story. For Ender’s Game, the mix of traditional wire work and CGI created a shiny but believable environment that keeps the audience engrossed in the film while watching the story of Ender and his crew unfold.

The Morality of War

If nothing else, 2 main themes came out of this film and the story “The sins of our past, effect our future” and “the way we win matters”. Humanity has always prided itself on winning wars for one reason or another but what most films do not dare show you is how the sins of our past taint our future. Ender’s Game doesn’t shy away from revealing how the adults in our world are perfectly okay with leaving the burden of their sins on the backs of future generations just to satisfy their need for conquest.

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Major Gwen (Davis) put it just right when she asked what would be left of the boy after this war, to which Ford’s Colonel Graff answered “what does it matter if there is nothing left at all?” Ender has the entire weight of genocide and war on his shoulders to carry and the adults of that world are more than willing to let it happen to win their war. In a fit of anger against his leaders, Ender proclaims that winning at any cost isn’t right, the way we win matters.

The Musical Score

The score for this film was traditional and futuristic but thats a good thing. Too many times in film the directors go for scores that try so hard to go outside the box they miss the beauty and importance the music plays in helping express emotion and anger on the screen. Composer Steve Jablonsky does a great job of using simple and complex instruments to convey important and complex emotions and scenes without the need for words. The cast enter the battle room with all of us awed not just by the visuals but also with the music that goes along with it.

Our Grade: 4/4 Stars

No matter what the author of the book has stated in the past, remember a few things: Card sold the rights to the film many years back, and does not make direct profits off this film. That has been confirmed countless times, so don’t go trying to debate it below. Card will likely make some money off book sales and other deals but lets not boycott the film and hurt the young actors and actresses that put so much effort and talent into telling this great story. If you really want to boycott the man, don’t purchase his book. As director Gavin Hood put it: Focus on the Message, Not the Author.

Want to Own This?

Ender’s Game (Original Motion Picture Score) [+digital booklet] Download

Ender’s Game [Blu-ray]

Ender’s Game Boxed Set I: Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon (Other Tales from the Ender Universe)

Robert Prentice