Ender’s Game Review

This ambitious and visually dazzling adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel falls short of greatness by lacking true emotional involvement in Ender’s plight.

When considering classic science fiction adaptation like Ender’s Game, one must first realize how few of those there actually are these days. Hollywood seems content to remake Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend or Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers for the third or fourth time, or maybe stretch another Philip K. Dick short story to the breaking point, while books like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation lie dormant in development hell (and the good Dr. Asimov would have been horrified at what they did to his I, Robot). That’s probably because science fiction – the literary kind – remains a genre of ideas with the occasional action sequence thrown in while the cinematic brand relies on action and maybe leaves a little room for an idea or two. That’s also probably why Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s acclaimed 1985 hybrid of military sci-fi and young adult fiction, has taken 15-plus years to get to the screen. Long stretches of Card’s book take place in the mind of the title character, so getting out of Ender’s head and creating a more screen-friendly version of the story has no doubt been a challenge. It is the future, and Earth has been nearly decimated by an invasion by an insect-like race called the Formics. Only the actions of a courageous war hero named Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) stopped the aliens in their tracks, but Earth’s government is fearful of another attack. Desperate to find the “next Mazer Rackham,” the International Fleet has founded Battle School, where children with the best tactical minds are recruited and trained to become the next generation of military leaders. Into this comes Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), whose two older siblings both flunked out of Battle School and who lacks confidence in his own abilities. But Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) sees something in Ender and despite challenges every step of the way, the boy proves himself to be the superior strategist that Graff has been looking for. But with Ender torn between compassion, a trait he picked up from his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), and a predilection for violence, a flaw inherited from his vicious brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), the youngster worries which one will dominate and guide him, for better or worse.
 Surprisingly, screenwriter/director Gavin Hood meets the challenge of adaptation with his reverent retelling here. I admit to being surprised because Hood’s last attempt at genre material, the woeful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, remains one of the more botched comic book movies of recent vintage. But while that may have been marred by an overabundance of writers and muddled ideas, Hood has clearly put a much more personal and protective stamp on Ender’s Game by adapting it himself, as well as directing it. The results are a movie that is visually dazzling—a number of images from the film resemble classic pulp sci-fi art, quite a pleasing thing to the eye of a genre fan—in a film that does not flinch away from taking on the more difficult ideas and themes embedded or insinuated in the source material. Ender’s Game is both a movie with a lot on its mind and with plenty of visual and kinetic razzle-dazzle – attributes which all sci-fi movies should aspire to, especially if they’re based on the written (or even illustrated) word. Where the movie has problems is in its pacing—particularly in its first half, as it rushes from plot point to plot point like a pinball ricocheting around a game. This is also reflected in the emotional involvement…or lack thereof. We never quite get a chance to truly feel Ender’s exhaustion and moral quandary as he barrels headlong toward his destiny, so we end up at an emotional distance that the movie only partially makes up in its closing scenes. But much of it does work, and it’s thrilling to see a respectful transfer of the material to the screen, even with some fairly extensive changes and excisions (the book’s six-year span is compressed to one, for example, and the entire political subplot involving Ender’s older brother has been jettisoned, for another). Although the screenplay’s structure starts to feel repetitive, there’s still enough there, both intellectually and visually, to keep the viewer engaged. Fortunately, Butterfield is an empathetic young actor who is able to use his eyes and expressions to convey a partial sense of Ender’s fear and particularly his rage. But because the origins of his rage (his brother) are only addressed in one brief, early scene, we have to be told about it more than shown. The film starts to feel mechanical after a while as Ender faces a challenge—the bully Bernard (Conor Carroll), the almost unbelievably mean team leader Bonzo (Moises Arias, doing everything but drowning Ender’s cat, if he had one) or another set of simulated military exercises—and overcomes it. This is followed by Graff turning to psychologist Major Anderson (an underused Viola Davis) or, later, Kingsley’s leathery Rackham, and intoning one of several variations on “So you still think he’s not ready?” Speaking of Graff, there is no way to look at Ford and of course not make the instant connection to the last three or four decades of sci-fi films. The actor’s iconic status in the genre serves both this film and his character well, and despite the repetitive nature of a number of his scenes, Ford is more awake for this performance than he was in the woeful Cowboys and Aliens. As with Ender himself, Ford is skillful enough to hint at the complicated emotions churning under Graff’s tough skin, but we never fully feel them ourselves until at least the end of the picture.