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Playing to Win: Ender’s Game Review

“Unfilmable” is a term thrown around Hollywood a lot. With so much of Hollywood’s success due to adaptations of novels, short stories, and comic books, they are always looking for the next big thing. Some of them just don’t translate well to the screen though. The last time I heard the term unfilmable was 2012’s Cloud Atlas (which I happened to love but the masses evidently didn’t). This year the movie that was finally being made was the sci-fi action flick Ender’s Game. The movie is based off of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 bestseller of the same title. For a long time, movie studios simply didn’t have the technology to bring this book to life, and screen writers were unsure how the story would unfold on the big screen. Well, after fifteen long years of production, the doubters can finally be silent. Ender’s Game is a masterpiece.

Ender’s Game takes place in the not to terribly far off future. In this world, all of humanity is united under one banner after they were attacked by an alien race known as the Formics (often referred to as “buggers”) a half century earlier. Humans won the war and turned away the alien invasion but have lived in constant fear of the day when they would come back. For that purpose, they created BattleSchool. It was believed that our greatest hope was to find incredibly gifted children and train them in the art of war, in hopes that they could save humanity. BattleSchool comes first, and then a select few graduate to CommandSchool.  Our story follows Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, and his ascension through the ranks.

Ender has been a special kid even from his conception. In this future, families are only allowed two children due to population control. Ender has a very intellectual set of parents that gave birth to two very gifted children, Ender’s siblings Peter and Valentine. Both went to BattleSchool but washed out, Valentine due to her having too much compassion and Peter because he was too violent. Ender’s parents were given special permission to have a third child for his potential. Being a “third” makes Ender extremely special and very alone, perhaps the two most important themes of the movie.

Ender's superior intellect furthers his isolation from the other kids.

Ender’s superior intellect furthers his isolation from the other kids.

Like most good sci-fi, Ender’s Game is based around larger real world issues. In this case, the focus is on how young men and women are sent off to fight the wars of old men. It does an amazing job of showing the obsessions of the adults that lived through the alien invasion and what they put the children through because of that obsession. Ender is singled out quickly by Colonel Graff who is over the kids and their training. Being a third, Ender already has felt quite alone his whole life, and his superior intellect has further isolated him. Graff does everything he can to keep him isolated and focused on his training. There is an amazing scene between Graff and Major Anderson that really sums up what a lot of the movie is about when you see that Graff’s only mission is to prepare Ender for war, while Anderson’s is to bring him back from the war.

Colonel Graff continuing to push Ender and separating him from the other kids.

Colonel Graff continuing to push Ender and separating him from the other kids.

I have to admit that, sadly, I have never read this book. I have always wanted to and I definitely will be now, but I can only comment on the movie purely as a film and not how it relates to the source material. That said, there are just so many amazing things about this film. I went in expecting an over-the-top spectacle that we usually see in the summer blockbusters. What floored me was just how character and story driven this movie is. Director Gavin Hood did a masterful job of making the audience care about Ender. You can almost feel his loneliness and therefore when Ender does form some relationships or bonds; it feels so much more important and real. The pacing of the movie was absolutely perfect. At a two hour run-time, I could not believe that I had gone on such a complete and inspiring journey. Not once did the movie feel rushed or forced. And just because the movie was surprising character driven, does not mean that there aren’t amazing special effects. The CG in this movie is stunning. Not once did I catch a hiccup in the background that accompanies most movies like this. You may think that a movie that follows kids training in strategy and tactics would get boring. You would be wrong. There are just so many fun and exciting parts to this movie. Watching Ender and the other kids compete in the battle arena (a zero gravity, capture the flag type game) is the most fun game I’ve seen on screen since I saw Quidditch for the first time. You will also be enamored by watching Ender figure out his strategy on the fly, and the end of movie will have you on the edge of your seat. Also, I would be remised if I didn’t mention the soundtrack. The score in this movie is breathtaking. Steve Jablonsky had me feeling like I was watching Glory in space.

Watching Ender formulate his strategies is enthralling

Watching Ender formulate his strategies is enthralling

Not only are Hood and Jablonsky great, the cast of the movie is truly amazing. Asa Butterfield burst on the scene a few years ago in Hugo, and he has come a long way since. With so much of the movie focused on his journey, he had to nail his performance and he came through in a big way. I was a bit worried about Harrison Ford to be honest. I know he was Indiana Jones and Han Solo and Jack Ryan, but Ford has had several roles that he has been truly bad in. This was not one of those roles. As Colonel Graff, Ford was flawless. You can almost feel his pain and his desperation throughout the whole film. Hailee Steinfield, who grabbed audience’s attention everywhere in True Grit, doesn’t get as hearty of a role this time, but does a wonderful job in her limited role as one of Ender’s first true friends and possible future love interests. Abagail Breslin plays Ender’s sister Valentine and does an admirable job as well. Ender’s relationship with his sister is vital to the story, and in very little screen time, Breslin really helps that relationship come to life for the audience. Acting greats Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis also appear as Mazer Rackham and Major Gwen Anderson respectively. Both of whom are vital parts of Ender’s training and are the tools in which we are shown the struggle over Ender as a weapon and Ender as a child. I literally have nothing bad to say about any of the acting in the movie.

Abagail Breslin as Ender's sister Valentine

Abagail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine

All-in-all, this may have been the surprise movie of the year from me (this or Ron Howard’s Rush, you should go see that). It really taught me a lesson about having preconceived notions going into a film. It was nothing like I expected it to be, and it was better in every way I ever thought it could be. It is a spectacle to watch and a ton of fun. It will make you happy and it will make you sad, and in the end it will make you think. And after all, isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place? Thank you Ender’s Game. I’m sorry I ever doubted you.

About Evan Swafford

Evan Swafford
Evan is a semi reluctant insomniac, who has used his extra time to watch way more TV than is healthy for a normal human being. All his other time is devoted to movies, gaming, and being a sports fanatic and stat geek. Evan has a degree from MTSU in Electronic Media Journalism which he now uses to grow some of the best trees and shrubs money can buy. You can hear his useless knowledge every week on the Free For All podcast.