Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite science-fiction books. Set in the future, humanity has already fended off an attack by an alien species called the “Formics”. The Humans are now preparing a direct offense against their civilization.
Ender Wiggin is a prodigal kid in military school whose talents are quickly recognized by his superiors. He is put in a fastrack program called the Battle School, much earlier than his peers. He is soon taken to the school which is set on a spaceship orbiting the earth. The cadets train in teams, competing against each other in a zero gravity arena. After a bullying incident, Ender is moved into his own team in order to test his leadership. He leads his team to consistent victories through his unconventional tactics and empathy for the teams members. After regularly outperforming everyone, he is again promoted. He and his team are put on a ship headed to the outpost near the alien planet. On its way there, the team undergoes further training against a particularly well designed simulation of the alien space fleet. After the initial surprise, we see Ender slowly catch onto the simulation’s tactics. The last part of his simulation training involves directing the entire fleet of the human spaceships against the Formics’ planet. After a particularly challenging battle, he sacrifices a part of his fleet in order to overcome the defence. At the end, he destroys the Formics’ entire planet with a weapon of mass destruction. After celebrating their victory, it is revealed to him that all these simulations were actually false. It dawns on him that his team had been fighting the actual aliens all this while. He’s now personally responsible for the obliteration of an entire space-faring species from the universe. Realizing that he’s been tricked into playing dirty, he’s very angry and blasts his superiors for deluding him. Ender is then forcibly put under sedation so that he may rest. While unconscious, he sees visions of a Formic queen trying to communicate with him. Waking up with a start, he makes his way to the Formic nest as seen in his dreams. He is joyous to find the Queen alive and guarding an egg. The queen recognizes him and trusts him with the egg for safekeeping. Repenting for his actions, Ender promises to carry the egg to a planet far away from humans, so that the species may repopulate.
The film’s plot follows the one in the the book as closely as possible. As in the book, the film too wants the idea of “love” to be its central concept. Ender is the medium through which it is supposed to explore the idea. Unlike the book however, there are very instances where we actually see this idea being explored. Enders interaction with his sister Valentine is restricted to a single scene. All of her remaining appearances are in Ender’s dreams, where she has no real character but serves only as a mirage.
Ender’s relationship with his bullies also foreshadows his reaction to the unwitting destruction of the Formics. The bullies are a microcosm of humanity’s relationship with the aliens. Every time Ender defeats a bully, he is overcome with grief and anger because of his own use of violence. He only ever takes part in the training because of his penchant for puzzles. Similar to the bullies who’re sent to test him, his adeptness at strategy is harnessed without permission against the aliens.
The movie’s problems begin with the extreme dependence on the subtlety present in source material. It is only able to depict a small percentage of the rich texture that is spun in the books. While it faithfully replicates the story, it fails to effectively depict Ender’s mental state that the readers usually accrue when reading the book. For a majority of the movie, we see no reference to an impending battle or planned attack on the aliens. This means that all the training and trials that we see Ender go through have little tension, all of which is resolved within the next few scenes. For most of the movie, there is no overarching plot being built. The audience only has a vague idea that aliens exist and is unaware of any real danger or threat from them. The film is really undone by its reliance on the final “reveal” as the climax. By the time Ender and the audience find out that the simulations were a facade, humanity has already won. There is no remaining tension to dissipate through this revelation, we’re aware of the outcome we know the stakes. For both Ender and the audience, not knowing the high stakes is equivalent to a low or no stakes battle. What could’ve worked an amazing twist in the middle of the second act, is now a very flimsy climax in the third.
The film tries its best to counter the mistakes and show Ender’s inner conflict. But we’re already leaving the theatre, scratching our heads at why we didn’t enjoy the high-stakes CGI battles that really weren’t.