Ender’s Game Review: Why does the movie make the Halo Direct to DVD movie feel like a masterpiece of acting?

Hello. This is Prof. AKIA. My history with the source material goes back to high school... I think. When I first read the book,  I could not let it down being somewhat of a frustrated extrovert trapped inside an introvert’s psyche. I trembled in Ender’s pain and reveled in Ender’s triumphs secreting dreaming of being someone who leaves a footprint on the sands of time. Now decades later, the sands of time are still smooth and I have read the book at least 10 times since then.


The original source material, Ender’s Game, is not an easy choice to make as a movie. It has very complex themes running throughout the story which requires a lot of emotional maturity from very young actors. Structurally, Ender’s Game is separated into three parts spaced about 6 years. And none of those parts are irrelevant to the overall story. They all play an integral part to the story. Without any one of those, the story does not really work.

As such, I had no real expectation of anything great coming out of this movie when I heard it was going to be a single movie. And the movie did surprise me!

It was worse than I expected.

The list of Cons

First, the script is written like a junior high cheat sheet with only fragments of facts without any overall understanding of the material and incorporates a perspective contradicting the theme of the story.
Second, the acting is extremely poor with the young actors not given proper instructions on how to process complex emotions and experiences beyond their comprehensions.
Third, it tries to avoid most of the emotional brutality regarding our young protagonists that really make the story.

Let’s talk about the first issue.

What is Ender’s Game about?

The story follows a 6 years old genius kid through 6 years of space military academy which has the mandate of creating fleet officers.

The officer part is important!

When I imagine the closest template movie for Ender’s Game, “Full Metal Jacket” by Stanley Kubrick comes to mind. The best description of Ender’s Game is “Full Metal Jacket” with kids set in space. And if you have every seen “Full Metal Jacket”, you would know how emotionally brutal that film is. Ender’s Game has the same level of emotional brutality thrust upon the protagonist, Ender. Even the story structure of “Full Metal Jacket” is similarly divided into training and war segments.

However, there is one fundamental difference.  

Boot camp versus Officer training
For the characters in “Full Metal Jacket”, the process they go through is boot camp for simply soldiers. The characters in “Ender’s Game” go through officer training. There is a fundamental difference between the two programs.

Boot camp is about getting as many civilians to satisfy a minimum military standard which is set at a level of just being able to execute orders received. That is it!

For the civilians, boot camp is a terrifying ordeal but objectively it is the bare minimum in which one’s attention is focused on just a few simple things. The civilians who go through boot camp are passive entities within the process. In other words, Boot camp is like a canine training program in which the recruits are trained to do a few tricks well and nothing more.

Officer training is different. The candidates are active entities within the process. It actually requires Intellectual inquiry and philosophical understandings of the orders and situation.  Officer training is about weeding out the candidates that will never rise up above the base requirements of an officer. Even though the bodies of the Officer candidates are confined to a small campus, their minds reach beyond their physical confines to the past and future of military history.

The two are fundamentally different on a functional and philosophical level.  It is the difference between recruits and candidates. And this is one of the main problems with the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game. Not only are all the characters in the movie passive entities within the education process, the movie itself is very narrow scoped in vision.
This is where the director’s, Gavin Hood, experiences of being a conscripted solider becomes a liability and not an asset to the movie. The movie is basically viewed through the eyes of a grunt rather than an officer. Gavin Hood is trying to create an environment that he has no understanding about and is using an experience as a reference which is the opposite of what is required by the story. This is really evident in the movie by the terms of tactical and strategic being used interchangeably.

It is a really grunt thing to do!

This faulty perception is a detriment when trying to adapt a novel spanning 6 years into what feels like a month. As the events have no causal meaning that the directer understand, events are picked from the novel devoid of context. As a result, Ender and other kids are passive entities within the story as a sequence of unrelated events pass by. Thus, the story becomes very fragmented and meaningless which puts more weight on the need for heavy expositions through dialog. 

A world devoid of life
Another consequence of this faulty perception is that the world on screen feels dead and devoid of life.  The battle school environment of the novel Ender’s Game has particular requirements. It requires the creation of hyper reality in which insulation, pressures, and competition manifest into an environment in which the Zero-G Game room and later the simulation space becomes the only real thing that matters. This hyper reality is fueled by children’s’ insecurity and the willingness to go far beyond reason in order to satisfy the needs of their parental figures and find their place in society.

This is a challenging environment to bring to life. The director, Gavin Hood, utterly failed at it!

The battle school and command school feels like a dead world with only about 10 people in total populating the location. Through all of the battle school and command school scenes, you only actually see like 30 people in total including extras. As a result, the whole movie feels like a high school stage play performed in a sardine can.

With the movie, the director seems to confuse an isolated but a vivid environment filled with very active children with a dead lifeless world. The only time when you fill any type of scale is with the CGI scenes without any characters.  

This is primarily the director’s fault.

While seeing the movie, I was constantly reminded of Halo Direct to DVD movie, Halo 4: Foward Unto Dawn. The Halo movie had similar actor age constraints and academic setting but felt much larger in scope. The director, Gavin Hood, simply does not have the vision or skill to create a living environment under the constraints of the movie.

Gavin Hood’s last work was “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”. While that movie is seen by fans to be a mess, the X-Men Origins movie had mature and experienced actors in it who gave decent performances in an overall lack luster movie.

Ender’s Game makes the point clear that any good thing that came out of the X-Men Origins movie was the actors’ contribution and not the director’s.

This leads into the second issues of the movie, the acting. 

The Acting
Bluntly stated, no one gave any kind of decent performance in this movie! Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley are phoning it in as they keep coasting on former glories. However, even when they phone it their performances, they are at least decent. It is not the same for the young teen actors.

The young teen actors are terrible in this movie. Their performances made the actors in Halo 4: Foward Unto Dawn seem great. They were not! They were passable for what the script required.

While many of the early review mention this, they, on the other hand, seem to think Asa Butterfield was the stand out in term of acting. I personally cannot see it! He was previously in "Hugo" and I felt he was so bland. In Ender’s Game, he is still very bland.

When did being bland and emotionless become considered to be subtle acting?

The dialog in the script is not easy ones to delivery as they demand a certain level of dignity and gravitas. In other words, it requires an Idris Elba level kid actor to pull it off.
Asa Butterfield is no Idris Elba!

I was surprised that Asa Butterfield was basically playing an Emo role without any expressions. He felt like a lifeless doll throughout the scenes. The consequence of this is that, at no time, did Ender feel like this genius strategist he is meant to be in the novel. The movie just tells us this and does not show us this. Even the Zero G battles that are intended to show us Ender’s genius does not work since they are lack luster in execution and no real context to the combat is ever given. It just happens.

The other young teen actors had different problems. Young actors tend to develop a set of over exaggerated expressions to use to express complex emotions they do not fully comprehend. This is the type of acting you see on Disney XD. There are a few actors that do not use this technique. None of those actors are cast in Ender’s Game.

The movie gave off the feeling that the actors were directed not use their bag of tricks but were not given help to replace those acting tricks. As a result, they were lost which makes the acting on Disney XD feel much better than what I saw on screen.

The third issue is that the movie is afraid of going to that brutal place required by the story. 

Chickening out
While some of the major events that really damaged our protagonist Ender is shown on screen, they are relatively sanitized. What is more serious is the fact that there were no proper build up to those incidents.  We are not given time to understand the context of those event as the movie speeds past those events. It is like no one in the movie was ever bullied in their life and does not understand it other than seen on screen. So, the events are just events and do not build up to emotional breaking points for Ender which is the point of those events.

Throughout the novel and movie, Ender is pushed to take huge risks and makes huge sacrifices in term of resource and men in his strategies. This is the result of Ender reaching his breaking point which justifies Ender’s choices. This does not exist in the movie. So, Ender’s decisions are just stupid decisions made by an Emo kid.

So, what did like?

The last 20 minutes was interesting since there were not much actual acting in those scenes. The majority were just CGI combat footage with the actors spouting out random lines of orders and flailing around with their arms doing Kinect movements.

This movie shows once and for all shows that the only thing less cool than playing Kinect is looking at someone playing Kinect. Someone should have told the director that the whole body control thing is just a fad. In addition, this movie has the most awkward tablet typing scenes ever!

After Thoughts
That is basically it! Through like two thirds of the movie, I was irritated and bored. For the remaining third, I was entertained but cringed when an actually acting scene came up. It’s a shame considering the source material.

I wish someone either made a cable miniseries or a trilogy from the novels instead of this movie we got! You should just go watch the movie adaptation of World War Z. The movie has nothing to do with the novel other than the theme but it is a better novel adaptation movie. 

World War Z, the movie,  at least is somewhat dumb fun.

Score: D


  1. I wonder how many first hand Korean War accounts there are? If your family owns this, why not self publish the English translation. I am enjoying reading this and would buy it.

  2. A Korean in AmericaNovember 2, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    It's like WW2 for Americans! A lot of them are out!
    Why not self publish the English? More work?....

    Ha Ha......
    Maybe later if I have time...

  3. Hello.... This is off topic but wanted to let you know I marathoned a really good 50+ drama this weekend called Smile, Mom on Viki. I don't think its very popular and the first 10 or 15 eps there had really bad subtitles. The title is kind of misleading- you immediately think of some sappy family shtick. It started out in a cliched manner but then got quite interesting..Some spoiler alert... The main protagonist is this crazy obsessive mom who wants to make her daughter an actress at all costs. She micromanages her daughter and at first, you start hating that woman. But then, you get to understand why she is this way. The daughter rebels in subtle ways until one dramatic moment that really changes their lives. The other character is the daughter-in -law who is framed as an adultress, tricked into a divorce and she then decides to clear her name and teach her ex a lesson. Its quite interesting, how she goes about that. She falls in love with a man and despite usual opposition, sticks firmly by him, explaining she also has the right to happiness. The other interesting character is the female friend of the main protagonist who went through a bad divorce in the past, shut out her children and falls in love with her student who is clearly 20 or 30 years younger. And the student sticks by her, even when she is diagnosed with early onset alzheimer's and he actually moves in with her family, so he can care for her. The final character/s were the mistress of the main protagonist's son, who eventually became his wife and her relationships with her husbands family (they all hate her from the beginning right up to the end) and the relationship she has with her long lost mother that does not follow the usual reunion path. It's a very female centric drama and the writer really fleshed out the main female characters. The men were in supportive roles, but you could understand their perspective for their actions. The writing was super, but unfortunately, some of actors were over the top and there was some sloppy directing.

  4. A Korean in AmericaNovember 4, 2013 at 6:13 AM

    Haven't heard about it. Thanks for the recommendation.
    Will try it!


  5. A Korean in AmericaNovember 5, 2013 at 2:07 AM

    Saw the 1st episode.
    Interesting concept. However none of the characters feel interesting at the moment. None terrible too
    So not sure if i'll watch more