In Ender’s Game we are transported into a future where mankind was nearly ravaged by a war with an alien species known as the Formics. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a brilliant young cadet in the military’s child soldier program, wherein kids train to be the commanders and soldiers that will thwart the second coming of the Formics – an event that is rapidly approaching.
Upon entering his outer space “Battle School”, Ender finds he has been tapped by the gruff Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) as the chosen one who may save mankind. Of course this means that Ender’s life in school must be a grueling hell – being viewed as an outcast while simultaneously being pushed harder than any other cadet to achieve and excel beyond all measure. But the more Ender learns about what makes a great commander, the more he realizes that those same lessons are crafting him into the sort of person he never wanted to become.
Adapted from the seminal sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card – which predicted everything from modern military ethics to iPad technology - Ender’s Game the movie arrives on a tsunami of expectations, after decades of failed attempts to get it to the silver screen. But after all those attempts and all those years of expectations, the fact that the end result is a good, solid, sci-fi movie may be the most ironic thing of all.
Even before it was a reality, Card’s novel was constantly declared to be a project that would either be really great or really terrible as a movie. The book is such a serious philosophical and psychological character study, set within in an intelligently imagined future – featuring child characters no less – that the assumption was that done right, it would be deeply moving; done wrong, it would be a shallow and preachy example of political theater disguised as sci-fi. Well, director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) defied both sets of expectations and instead created something that falls squarely in the middle of the pool.
The set design, tone and general directorial vision and execution of Ender’s Game is pretty good. Scott’s meticulously-built future arrives intact, looking quite colorful and epic (especially in IMAX), and Hood manages to create an atmosphere (no pun) in which this world of children truly feels as serious and intense as a world of elite adult soldiers. While some of the green-screen backgrounds and wire-work used to simulate zero gravity movement look a bit budgeted (hard act to follow, that Gravity flick…), in general, the sci-fi elements of the movie work well in creating an immersive and interesting world. The biggest thing that fans of the book will be wondering about are the infamous Battle Room sequences; though too few in number (when compared to the novel), those scenes are impressive realizations of Card’s words, and impressive movie sequences in their own right – as are later sequences involved with Ender’s more advanced “schooling.”
However, it does seem prudent to make this clear, early: Without the spot-on casting and performances by the talented cast, Ender’s Game would only be an “okay” movie in terms of direction and script quality. It’s really the cast that sells each scene and sequence, starting with another fantastic performance from Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin. Butterfield (from his very first scene) is able to contain the complex psychology and emotions of Ender within his big, baby-bird eyes, while totally selling the almost hinge-like turns where Ender goes from vulnerable child to stoic Napoleonic strategist to ruthless soldier (and vice versa).
The rest of the child actors behind Butterfield – such as True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld – all do their characters justice and work well as an overall ensemble. Ford basically plays the sort of weary-eyed rascal you’d expect from Harrison Ford – but in this case, his trademark persona fits the bill. Heavy-hitters Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis are necessary anchors, taking some of the most expositive and heavy-handed passages from the book and endowing them with real organic emotion so that what would be pontification in another film plays like engaging philosophical dialogue in this one.
Take away the cast and their good work, and Hood’s screenplay is little more than a tightly condensed and rushed summary of Card’s novel. There is definite care taken with the selection of key scenes, and little homages tucked here and there for die-hard fans of the books to appreciate – but even looking at it purely as a film (forgetting the book for a second): it feels like things develop at an overly-rapid pace. The first ten minutes alone are a blur of what should be important orientation of both narrative and character, before we’re off to the land of set pieces and CGI awe, with some of the most important bits left to implication and inference.
At 114 minutes there are signs that even Hood knows there is opportunity (and actor ability) to dive deeper into what Card’s book and principal character are all about; however, blockbuster film conventions demand things keep moving. The ticking clock can practically be heard by the end, in which a longer epilogue of the book is packed-down and condensed nearly to suffocation. The debate about whether or not this property would’ve been best as a TV (mini-)series or film franchise will likely never end – but Hood does his best to trim smartly (and with room for later entries in the franchise) and most of the major plot beats play out well (again, thanks to the cast).
In the end, Ender’s Game is just… good. It’s not the most visually stunning, or brilliant sci-fi film of the year (there’s that Gravity movie again…) but it is an interesting and well-acted representation of a novel that has withstood the tests of time and changing paradigms with good reason. There might be some value in playing this game.
Ender’s Game is now in theaters. It is 114 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.