Summary: A young and very intelligent boy is sent to a “battle school” in space to compete in training games in preparation for fighting deadly aliens. Based on the 1985 novel.
Thoughts: May be spoilers ahead…
Some lines of dialog come across as extremely cheesy, and there are cheesy moments when characters smile at each other and nod. I hate those sort of shots. Actually, this is my biggest complaint. The movie would be much better if you just take out some of the cheesy lines. They may have worked in the book, but they just don’t translate to screen for some reason.
Many of the supporting characters came off as flat cardboard characters, either supporting Ender for some unknown reason, or hating him for some unknown reason; we don’t really get a chance to empathize with anyone but Ender.
The set design was a bit sci-fi cliché; clean polished metal walls everywhere, everything all square and straight and bright and colorful.
Battle school and command school always feel a bit fake. We only see three adults, usually talking in their office. Surely there are more somewhere? Or is it that easy to run the place? We only ever see shots of the students doing things in neat clean rooms. There are so few props. There’s no life to the place, it doesn’t feel like a bunch of people are living there. It feels like a bunch of wooden movie sets.
Finally, the movie just sort of misses out on the strong themes of the book. It hints at them now and then by dramatizing scenes from the book, but it never really explores them. There’s the manipulation and emotional abuse Graff puts Ender through because he thinks that’s the best way to make him strong. There’s Ender’s struggle to both defeat his enemy and understand his enemy. There’s what the adults ultimately do to Ender for their own ends. These themes are there in the script, but they’re not there in spirit, if that makes any sense; I never really felt them like I did in the book. The book does have the advantage that we can see into Ender’s thoughts, but there should’ve been a way to get these themes across in the film, in the music and pacing and tone, etc. That’s the art of filmmaking; making a film say things without a character having to speak them, making a film say things that can’t be spoken.
I thought the film hit some beats very well, particularly Graff and Ender’s exchange as they first blast off into space, when Ender is forced to do push ups after angering a sergeant, when Ender first meets Mazer, and the very end when Ender faces the bug alien Formic thing. (Unfortunately, a lot of these great moments fail to add up to anything thematically; they’re not cohesive. They come across as a highlight reel from the book.)
The camera work was nice. A lot of straight head on shots, which are refreshing and help draw you into the characters and the world. I only fear the director may have over used it. (Over-the-shoulder shots usually feel very faky to me; it’s rare that people just stand there facing each other talking, or even look directly at each other through an entire conversation.)
Very nice cinematography and music. Great acting. (I don’t blame actors for having to deliver cheesy lines.)
Overall, despite my complaints, the story from the book is still there, it still works, and it’s still powerful. Overall, the film was honestly better than I expected it to be. Still a lot of missed potential and really annoying cheesiness. I guess it also helps to be familiar with the book, because then you can understand what’s going on in Ender’s head even if it’s not coming across on screen (or is delivered through a really cheesy line). That is, I can’t really think of this as a film in and of itself; it’s a layer added onto my understanding of the book.
I enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of the book, you’ll likely enjoy it too. Still not as powerful or as deep as the book, but it’s certainly one of the better book-to-film translations I’ve seen.