“This is basic rocket science, people” one adult trainer tells a class of prepubescent commanders-to-be in one scene of Ender’s Game, writer/director Gavin Hood’s feature film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s critically acclaimed, classic sci-fi novel. That oxymoronic sentence is used in the film to demonstrate this particular young class’ advanced intellect, but it also serves as quite the allegory for the film itself. Hood has taken a complex, intellectually and morally challenging tale and made it, for the most part, a very straightforward sci-fi adventure. But boy, are those explosions flashy and exciting!
For the 3 of you not familiar with Card’s original tale, in the near future the Earth gets attacked and nearly wiped out by an insect-like alien race, the Formics, but disaster is averted by a single military hero. Earthlings know that it’s only a matter of time before the Formics come back, so they begin trying to find a new military commander to lead Round Two. Since us humans are able to assimilate new knowledge faster and have much quicker mental and physical reflexes the younger weare, this leader will be picked from a group of genius children. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (a lanky Asa Butterfield, all elongated frame and simmering angst) is one such child, and according to the gruff Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford, who alternates between sleepwalking and growling through his scenes) he is the likeliest candidate for the job to come along in ages.
Ender is picked for Battle School, the space-based academy where these child soldiers have to work through several, eerily realistic looking battle simulations, and in Ender’s case, also see himself tested in all sorts of ways by the harrumphing Graff. Like being forced to go all Tony Jaa on another boy’s ribs. Yes, Ender has a mean streak. He also has a squishy, marshmallow soft side, something encouraged by Viola Davis’ empathetic Major Gwen Anderson and his sister Valentine, played by the cherubic Abigail Breslin.
It’s this emotional see-saw that provides what little complexity there is to the film, and while I think Asa Butterfield does a fairly decent job portraying both extremes, it just feels like there should be more. Now, I’ve always firmly believed that an adaptation should be viewed and judged as separately from its source as possible, which is why I really hate to be that guy that chirps about “But in the book…”, but in the book there are just several more thought provoking layers than what we find in Hood’s abridged script. Concepts like how Ender is a “third” – future society has a two-child limit – or how it’s his brother’s violent bullying that teaches that births his fighting spirit, or even the fairly subversive idea that it’s become perfectly normal to use children to wage an intergalactic war, all get swept under the carpet by Hood’s writing broom, all in favour of big action set-piece pyrotechnics.
These beats are thoroughly invigorating and look and sound incredible though, with Hood doing a bang-up job of getting the story’s big moments spot on. This includes one of Card’s most famous creations, the zero-g Battle Room where Ender spends plenty of time learning how to fight – and with the eyelash fluttering help of the charmingly talented Hailee Steinfeld – make close friends in space. These inventive and visually thrilling Battle Room sequences are easily the film’s highlight, with Hood showing a much better grasp of action direction than he did in his previous big budget blockbuster, the abortive X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
But Hood’s acceleration of the story’s timeline (it feels like it took place over just a few weeks when it should be years) to accommodate the modern blockbuster template, means that certain plot points which later on become key to what appears to be an epically sprawling sci-fi story, are just glossed over initially. There are also some odd casting choices resulting in unintentional hilarity, with the most glaring being that of Bonzo Madrid, the young Commander of Salamander Army under whose command Ender is placed at Battle School. When Bonzo proceeds to give our hero several, evil-eyed, verbal dressing-downs, there were quite a few sniggers to be heard in the cinema, brought on by the fact that Moisés Arias, the actor playing Bonzo, is in desperate need of a step ladder or two to be able to glare at Butterfield appropriately. He comes across more like a perturbed garden gnome than an intimidating commander with whom Ender has a clash of wills. Something similar can be said for Nonzo Anosie’s Seargeant Dap, who certainly has the physical stature but seems to have seen and studied an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon once about how drill sergeants are supposed to sound like, and now he’s doing he’s not-quite-best impersonation thereof from memory.
In the end, Ender’s Game the movie fumbles and excises just a smidge too much of what made Ender’s Game the novel such a game changer. Longtime fans may feel bit frustrated by the lack of depth, while new newcomers may feel like they’re getting the cliff notes only. What both groups will get though is a movie that pops and zips, helped along by mostly solid performances, decent sci-fi world building and some full-throttle entertainment with killer looks. And I guess for some (but not quite me), that’s enough.
Last Updated: December 5, 2013