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Ender's Game (Blu-ray Review)

31 Jan, 2014 By: John Latchem

Street 2/11/14
Box Office $61.74 million
$29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some violence, sci-fi action, and thematic material.
Stars Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley.

If I didn’t already know that Ender’s Game was based on a novel released in 1985, I would swear that it was a synthesis of nearly every recent trend influencing movies aimed at tweens.

I can imagine a pitch meeting of studio creatives brainstorming their next big franchise, a Last Starfighter-esque sci-fi story about an awkward teenager who is good at video games being chosen to attend space Hogwarts, where the students engage in a series of “Hunger Games”-type battles to determine who is most qualified to lead an attack against an alien menace.

But alas, the genesis of this junior edition of Starship Troopers is all laid out in a book that is very popular among the fanboy set, but never made it to the screen until now due to a variety of complicated reasons, not the least of which involves studios wanting to tone down some of the plot’s primary ethical dilemmas.

The Ender’s Game novel was the first in a series of books, and the film does end with a set-up for a sequel, it probably won’t happen after lackluster box office results.

The story paints the picture of a future in which Earth repels an invasion by a race of insectoids, prompting humanity to devote itself to eradicating the next great threat. Asa Butterfield gives a nice turn as Ender, a young tactical genius who is recruited by Col. Graff (effectively played by Harrison Ford) to attend the orbital Battle School, where teenagers are taught the art of war.

The military prefers training children because they have an affinity for video games, they have an inherent skill for processing information in unique ways, and they don’t fully understand the moral consequences of their actions. The film dances around the psychological tolls these battle drills have on the young soldiers, themes more eloquently developed in the heft of a lengthy novel, and something seems slightly lost in the translation.

The novel is an ambitious piece of fiction that spans several years of Ender’s life and training. It would be like if the entire story of Harry Potter was contained in a single book. It’s understandable that some observers would consider the book unfilmmable, and all things considered this movie is an admirable adaptation.

But it’s as if the filmmakers are trying to have it both ways. Condensing the timeline reduces the sense of scope and omits details that lend credibility to the premise, yet some tweaks that might make the whole film work better would have further distanced it from the source material in a way the filmmakers weren’t willing to do.

This reverence for the book is evident in a pair of audio commentaries. The first, by director Gavin Hood, is more technical and oriented on the production. The second, featuring producers Gigi Pritzker and Roberto Orci, plays more like a couple of fans of the book who were thrilled to be able to work on the movie.

According to Hood, the film faced budget cuts when some financing fell through, and additional obstacles after one of its visual effects houses went bankrupt. You wouldn’t know it just from looking at the picture.

The film looks great on Blu-ray, displaying a visual beauty with glorious Earth-bound landscapes and fantastically realized space battles. The production values are top notch, especially in the design of the space station and its Battle Room, a giant glass sphere that lets the students float around in zero-g combat.

The Blu-ray also includes 50 minutes of making-of featurettes and 10 minutes of deleted scenes, including a couple that had to come out because, even though they contain some interesting character examinations, they pretty much give away the ending.

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