Directed by: Gavin Hood
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley
Ender’s Game is a book that I heard once called the Harry Potter of sci-fi. The analogy is fairly correct although I’d say Ender’s Game is more layered and complex than Harry Potter, at least when we are talking the first book in the Potter franchise. The darkness and complexity of the Ender book made it one of those stories that filmmakers felt was “un-filmable” for many years. After all how do you tell a story for young adults that is so dark and torturous at times? In the last several years other popular books directed toward the younger set have found success on film including the Twilight franchise (not good films but definitely successful ones) and most notably the first Hunger Games film and book. All of this made an Ender’s Game adaptation seem possible. The book fell into development Hell for years before finally being tackled by director Gavin Hood. Hood’s most notable work is Marvel Origins: Wolverine, a poor film that actually had good bones. In other words Wolverine could have been a good movie with more work put into it. Hood also has a few less than notable writing credits. Acknowledging his writing credits is important because he took on the job of adapting the book for the screen along with directing the film.
The story originally written by Orson Scott Card follows the life of a young boy in the far future named Ender Wiggin. The Earth was once attacked by aliens and only barely survived the battle. Years later the Earth’s military is staging an offensive to keep the aliens from returning to earth. They have discovered that there are special young people with the mental capacity to learn and adapt faster than adults and to approach situations in new ways not having been influenced by many years of the status quo. Ender is determined to be even more special than the rest of the young recruits; he could be the leader of them all. Time is short though, and Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) must do anything, no matter what the cost, to quickly mold Ender into the tough killer that he needs to be to win the coming war. Major Anderson (Viola Davis) works with Graff to evaluate Ender, and to be Ender’s only advocate as much as she can.
The film offers an abbreviated backstory for Ender and an extremely brief trek through his training. In the original book Ender was recruited at age six and he went through many years of training before the war. In this film he’s recruited at twelve and goes through a rapid year of training. The person that Ender must become is dark and tough and cold, a difficult person to root for. The book made you support him because you were put through everything that Graff did to him, every brutal moment of it, and you felt sorry for Ender and understood why he was the person he was by the end of the story. This leads to the first failing of the film. Everything is so brief and the mind and physical games that Graff plays on Ender are so few it is difficult to invest in Ender’s journey and that makes him much less likable. Obviously things must be changed and often omitted for a move from book to film but some very important points in Ender’s evolution are left out making him less of a hero in the film than he was in the book. On the upside Asa Butterfield is fantastic in the role of Ender. When he’s given the opportunity to play the layered emotional character that Ender is he nails it. Harrison Ford owns the film though, perfectly showing a man desperate to sacrifice one to save many but also showing that he has developed compassion for Ender making his job all the more difficult. Viola Davis is also good in her role even though it’s barely developed.
Another incredibly important element to making this story successful is Ender’s connections, both positive and negative to his classmates. These parts of the film seem like they are just bullet points on a story outline and they don’t get the attention they deserve. These elements may come across weak because the casting is so weak. None of Ender’s classmates are particularly engaging actors. In fact the stronger Asa Butterfield is in the role the worse they come off in their own roles. Hallee Stienfeld has the most potential as far as the other recruits go to be a better actress than she seems. Aramis Knight as Bean is pretty terrible and that’s disheartening because this character becomes extremely important in future installments of the story. If there are more movies hopefully the character will be recast. Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister is great but again her role is abbreviated. Hopefully she was cast for future films because like Bean her character becomes central in future installments of the series. Lastly Ben Kingsley, normally a stellar actor, is way to over the top in his role.
Finally the FX of Ender’s Game all in all just seem a bit on the generic side and even a little cheap in places. The battle school sequences are pretty fantastic but the battle games are so dull looking with their blue lasers and bland ships that it just doesn’t work. Ender’s private videogame on the other hand is full of style if a little too simplified when compared to the videogames we are playing today. Shouldn’t it look better since it’s in the future? With that said the battle games do offer a nice sense of depth with the camera movements and probably would have looked great in 3-D.
Ender’s Game may have truly just been an “un-filmable” story. The darkness and much of the complexity of story are washed away here and it’s not clear what they were washed away in favor of. With that said what’s left is still smarter than most young adult style adventure films and the highs (Asa Butterfield as Ender) are incredibly high. Ender’s Game is a fun watch, just not the groundbreaking young adult story it could have been, and was in print. Hood really should have just directed this one and brought in some solid writers to rip into that novel and bang out a better script. The film is definitely worth seeing as it is better than any other similar film that’s hit theaters in the last ten years.