Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Ender’s Game’ doesn’t get off the ground

Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

It’s a shame to see a beloved novel lose so much of itself in the jump from page to screen. I read Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” many years ago, so some of it has escaped my memory, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing in writer/director Gavin Hood’s adaptation. The film feels like an abridged version of a more in-depth, immersive film, one that will unfortunately never be seen.

The story necessitates a darkness that just isn’t in this movie. Hood quickly sets up the post-interplanetary war future, but a number of that setting’s dystopian elements are glazed over. For instance, there is only a passing mention of population restriction or family-size regulation, and nothing more. Instead of true world-building, Ender (Asa Butterfield) is tasked with some expository voiceover work to explain the complex universe of the book. While that sometimes helps to frame the story, like when Ender writes home to his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), it often feels forced and the information it dumps on the audience doesn’t fill in the gaps in the narrative.

Those gaps are detrimental not just to the believability of the plot, but also to characterization. Many of the supporting roles feel very one-note. Breslin is somewhat affecting as Valentine, the one true emotional anchor in Ender’s life, but she is far too quick to convince him to run into the dangerous abyss of war. Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Colonel Graff is reduced to a single beat: that of the gruff, grizzled war veteran. Even Ben Kingsley as the mysterious tattooed war hero Mazer Rackham is limited in depth. The film is difficult to emotionally invest in or relate to, since it doesn’t give these characters much room to breathe.

“Ender’s Game” consistently feels rushed, as if Hood was trying to cram too much in too little time. Hood moves through the story in a one-thing-after-another fashion that feels flat and hollow. It’s not that each of the elements of the story isn’t tended to, but that they’re never fully realized.

For example, Ender is quickly thrown under the spotlight as a chosen one, but Butterfield is inconsistent in his portrayal of the characteristics that make Ender so special. The lasting impression that sticks with me after all these years was one of a dark, cold, young kid who stood on the frayed edge between compassion and harsh, strategic apathy. Conversely, Butterfield plays this Ender with a confusing level of conflict.

Where the original Ender seemed coldly fearless, Butterfield’s Ender seems afraid of the growing chaos around him. He only becomes more convincing when the plot absolutely necessitates it. The battle school environment is believably harsh, but, oddly enough, the overarching situation of adults training children to lead a war against a hostile alien race is not nearly as compelling as it was in the book. Only an unpredictable shift towards the end of the film’s third act makes the story’s universe feel more real.

It isn’t nearly enough to save the film, but the movie’s aesthetics are well-executed. The cold silver and white color palette of the battle school space station and the sparse, precise lighting are intimidating. Training sequences place Ender and his fellow “launchies” right in the action of the battle room and the immersion of the characters into those simulated battle environments is certainly an achievement.

“Ender’s Game” works best within those confines, set against the dark and unforgiving backdrop of outer space. It’s convincing enough as an interstellar origin story, but “Ender’s Game” isn’t meant to be an origin story. Once the focus shifts to a conflict between species, the ethical and philosophical questions of war create a believable tension, but the film doesn’t provide enough tangible context to establish itself in-universe.

It’s when the film is most grounded, most terrestrial, that it is at its weakest. The bizarre aspects of Orson Scot Card’s future society are never explored in a satisfying way; they are merely touched on, so the brave new world that should be twisted and intimidating instead feels hollow and empty. Card’s novel was chillingly bleak and darkly ruminative, but Gavin Hood’s adaptation is static, shallow and crushingly unmoving. The sinister spark of this story remains exclusive, for now, to the realm of the written word.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected].

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