Up until now, Hollywood has for good reason shied away from adapting Ender’s Game for the screen. The author himself once dubbed the novel "un-filmable" and he wasn’t far off with that label. Aside from the obvious casting issues that would ensue (the main character, for example, begins Battle School at the age of six), much of the story is developed through Ender’s constant, internal monologue. That, coupled with the plots twists and turns, would make an adaptation tough to successfully pull off. Despite these inherent difficulties, however, Ender’s Game has finally made the leap to the screen under the direction of Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine).
Though it boasts an impressive cast, fans of the "Enderverse" have understandably been cautious to warm up to Hood’s big-budget, Hollywood adaptation. If you were at the cinema at all this summer, you were likely bludgeoned over the head with the film’s early trailers. To fans, Harrison Ford’s clunky narration and the polished look of the film suggested that the intelligence and originality of the novel had somehow been lost in translation. There was, however, a glimmer of hope. Attached to score the film was composer James Horner, who’s taken his talents to space on more than a few occasions. Film music enthusiasts had every right to hope that this would be another Krull, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Apollo 13, Avatar, or even Aliens for Horner, since the source material was rich enough to give the music numerous places to shine through. Indeed, Horner’s Ender’s Game was one of my most anticipated scores of 2013.
As has been indicative of the project overall, however, our hopes were fleeting. Just months after the news broke that the inimitable Horner was on board, Transformers and Battleship composer Steve Jablonsky was announced as his replacement. Though he has legitimately impressed with Steamboy and rubbed more than a few guilty-pleasure soft spots with his first Transformers entry, Jablonsky is notoriously hit-or-miss. As it turns out, both the quality of the former score and the memorable themes of the latter are absent from this outing. For all intents and purposes, Ender’s Game is the quintessential, phoned-in replacement score.
The main identity that Jablonsky has concocted for the concept is not necessarily bad but it’s by no means remarkable. Heard in "Ender’s War", it is a sufficient, if not uncomplicated idea for Ender. It completely fails to address the complexity of Card’s story but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Jablonsky delivered exactly what the studio asked for here. The expected string ostinatos, tapping bell, slapping percussion, choir, and melodramatic cello are all here in spades, but we’ve heard the mix in such better fashion before, even from Jablonsky himself. The "Ender’s War" theme is reprised in a few, chance instances, "Dragon Army", "Ender Quits" and "Ender’s Promise" being the only cues that feature any significant return to the idea. While it may indeed hit a few guilty pleasure buttons for some, it’s hard to see "Ender’s War" and its rather scarce reprisals carrying a film on their own, much less an entire franchise. Nevertheless, that’s basically what they have to do here; Ender’s Game is almost entirely devoid of other memorable themes.
The rest of the material in Jablonsky’s score is largely dominated by a simple cello motif introduced in "Move It Launchies" and then reprised in what seems like endless instances in conjunction with three, ascending choral/string notes in "Salamander Battle", "Dragon Army", "Mazer Rackham", "Command School", "Graduation Day", in variation in "Game Over", and in "Commander" for one final send-off which, incidentally, sounds exactly like nearly every other rendition of the idea. Clearly Jablonsky was fond of it, but it’s so damn pervasive on album that it ends up being a little frustrating for the listener.
Even more frustrating are cues like "Battle School", long passages of repeated ostinatos that give the impression of underlay for a thematic burst that never materializes. "The Battle Room" continues the style of "Battle School" with the addition of a four-note violin motif that’s distractingly reminiscent of Djawadi’s Game of Thrones. Jablonsky’s action material also exists in the same vein as these cues. "Dragons Win", "Command School", and "Final Test" all feature ostinatos of varying speeds with the usual percussion slaps and horn blasts that boast little development, panache, or excitement.
The remainder of Jablonsky’s Ender’s Game is largely directionless ambient work, a rather disappointing approach to a concept so immersive and rich. "Stay Down", "Mind Game Part 1", "Mind Game Part 2", "Bonzo" (pronounced "Bone-so", contrary to what early promotional clips would have you believe), and much of "Ender Quits", "Mazer Rackham", "Enemy Planet", "The Way We Win Matters", and "Ender’s Promise" seem to exist as mere static, sonic wallpapering.
Though perhaps a few minutes of Steve Jablonsky’s Ender’s Game could indeed be considered ripe, guilty-pleasure material (say, "Ender’s War" and the start of "Salamander Battle"), the score as a whole is a pretty disappointing piece of work. Not only is it not awe-inspiring, as one would expect for such a concept; it often fails to even be interesting. Orson Scott Card’s novel is so fantastic, immersive, and gripping that it’s hard to imagine a composer not having a field day with this material, but what Jablonsky has offered in this score shows little sign of this. And that opinion, mind you, is not coming from the mouth of a curmudgeonly critic who frequently writes off Remote Control scores by the dozen. I’ve got a soft spot for Transformers and I’m probably one of the few of us web-based, film score reviewers who actually enjoys that slam-bang blockbuster sound when it’s done right, but Ender’s Game is not one of those instances. It may not be Jablonsky's worst, but Ender’s Game is in so many ways a marvelous opportunity squandered. I hope the studio is content.
A Few Recommended Tracks: "Ender's War", if you're really curious
Label: Varese Sarabande
Availability: 21 track edition