It’s been nearly 30 years since “Ender’s Game” etched itself into the canon of important science-fiction novels, and like so many important science-fiction novels, a film adaptation has toiled in movie development hell, with the “unfilmable” label frequently cast upon it. Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) has taken a stab at adapting and directing Orson Scott Card’s classic, and with a bold vision, he manages to capture its essence in spite of how narrowly he clears the hurdles of the adaptation.
Timing could not have been more perfect for an adaptation of “Ender’s Game.” The popularity of stories featuring teens training for battle and alien invasion films in combination with today’s visual effects capabilities created the perfect storm to finally warrant Ender a green light.
The story takes place after Earth was nearly destroyed at the hands of an alien race called Formics, and decades later, we have prepared by training our youngest and brightest in the event that they return, to find a leader capable of eliminating the threat. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is young boy who has been scouted by Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) and Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis) for the military’s elite battle school. He catches their eye because he exhibits unusual genius but also has tendencies toward both courage and ferocity as well as compassion and empathy. They push him through rigorous tests of character and skill to see if he might really be the one.
Pushing through also appears to be the motto behind Hood’s script. He strings together a number of well-constructed scenes that either inform us about Ender or challenge him in some way, but the film bulldozes through them, practically shoving Ender into his destiny. There are plenty of low-key moments that are unmistakably character-building in nature, but the film’s forward momentum is so strong that there’s little time to stop and look around, to live in the fascinating world of the movie.
Surprisingly, the film doesn’t suffer that much for its breakneck pace. Although it would have been nice to see more of the captivating zero-gravity battle room sequences, or have more time to completely grasp the budding friendships between Ender and his schoolmates including Hailee Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian, Hood does a nice job identifying the core themes and universal elements of the story and getting them across with effective storytelling devices.
Most of this is as it relates to Ender. A victim of bullying who knows how to turn the tide in his favor, Ender is torn between the ruthlessness it takes to win and the monstrous toll it can take on ones conscience. He strives to be the balance between his older brother Peter’s (Jimmy Pinchak) aggression and his old sister, Valentine’s (Abigail Breslin) sensitivity. The way Butterfield manages to portray this inner conflict, which is the film’s only real “sub-plot,” suggests he won’t be the kind of child actor who disappears after his teens.
Entertainment value, however, rates highest of all that “Ender’s Game” has to offer. Hood’s vision of Card’s world is rich to look at, with outstanding production design that blends sleek, stylish sci-fi elements with tangible technology. You’re never once distracted or surprised by the futuristic elements of the film because they blend so well. Battle room choreography and the other sequences that play off technology benefit as a result.
Something dissatisfying lingers and lurks about the film as it goes, like you feel cheated each time it takes a big step forward, but sometimes wanting to see more of a film is not a sign of a failed adaptation but of a great one. It would be a stretch to call Hood’s adaptation great, but it’s to the point and it manages to do the most important parts of the story — the themes — justice. It’s not easy to make a movie adaptation that both meets the PG-13 blockbuster requirements of a studio and effectively communicates the mature themes of the source material. “Ender’s Game” does it, and in less than two hours at that.
Considering “Ender’s Game” was once difficult to imagine in one’s head, the fact that it comes together on screen in something of a miracle, regardless what you think of Hood’s decision- making in actually getting it from one to the other. Plot-wise it leaves something to be desired, but the film achieves so much on a visual level without losing sight of the social message that Card meticulously crafted it to say. When it comes to films with weighty expectations, filmmakers have failed much worse.
Directed by Gavin Hood
Written by Gavin Hood, Orson Scott Card (novel)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin