Written and directed by Gavin Hood
Condensing a popular young adult book to its most basic and necessary parts is an unenviable task. No matter how passionate the filmmakers are to the original text, someone’s bound to be disappointed. No film adaptation can satisfy every fan; it doesn’t matter how hard you try. Take out one character or rewrite them to be minimal, and you’re doomed. Change around the plot one iota, and fans will have their pitchforks at the ready. Ironically, it’s probably in the best interest of a filmmaker to ignore the demands of fandom, even as they make a movie that may cater primarily to the people who comprise that fandom. With the long-awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, writer-director Gavin Hood has managed to deliver a solid enough adventure to appeal to non-readers, while making it painfully clear how much condensing was necessary in the process, potentially to the ire of longtime fans.
Asa Butterfield plays Ender Wiggin, a preternaturally gifted kid who excels at militaristic strategy. And wouldn’t you know, Ender lives in a grim and fierce future on Earth when the whole of humanity seems focused on the reoccurrence of war with an alien race called the Formics. He’s quickly recruited by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, acting suitably graff—er, gruff), who sees in Ender a potential commander to rival an iconic figure who put a stop to the first war with the Formics. Ender quickly adapts to his environment in a space station hovering over Earth, standing out as the best of the best. The smarter he gets, the more responsibilities he has, all the way until he and his new comrades are faced with a mammoth simulation meant to prove their worth as future tacticians.
It all sounds very vague when explained to Ender, and anyone who’s read the book knows there’s a reason why. Hood’s adaptation tiptoes around the legitimate (pun not intended) endgame, despite making it clear that Graff sees Ender as a means to an all-important victory. Ford and Butterfield, in the meatiest roles, do the best among the well-cast ensemble. Though Butterfield, best remembered as the title character in Martin Scorsese’s delightful family film Hugo, struggles mightily with an American accent, he conveys a surprising amount of emotion, especially in the final act. Often, it feels as though Hood had to leap through various episodic sections to get to the big setpieces, but Butterfield is a satisfying enough lead that he carries the audience through these over-far-too-quickly segments. And Ford, arguably not operating too far out of his comfort zone, manages to be just engaged enough as Colonel Graff, who starts out seeming very much like a friendly if taciturn, Harrison Ford-like authority figure and ends up complex and nasty.
Although the rest of the characters are played by colorful and welcome presences like Ben Kingsley (operating, thankfully, outside of his Easy Paycheck mode), Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, and Abigail Breslin, too few of them are given any dimension or depth. Ender’s Game is, including credits, a few minutes under 2 hours, so Ender’s journey feels more like a checklist of stages he has to pass through to become a better leader. The visuals are solid enough—though coming just a month after Gravity, the scenes in which Ender and his fellow teenage fighters do simulated battle in a zero-G environment suffer for having slightly cheesier special effects—and the actors never feel adrift, so neither does the film. However, each scene is accompanied with a sneaking suspicion that Ender’s Game would be better served by not rushing so much. What suffers most is a lack of detailed relationships; we know, for instance, that Ender is close to his sister Valentine (Breslin), less because they interact frequently, and more because Ender is constantly narrating letters to Valentine, or mentioning her elsewhere. All of the connections he has are cursory, except for his push-pull dynamic with Graff. The more screentime someone in this film has, the more filled-in they appear, even if it’s merely thanks to a committed performer.
Ender’s Game has sequences with genuine thrills, and a propulsive energy that’s missing in some other young-adult adaptations of late. (As this is from Summit Entertainment, the studio that came to prominence after making the Twilight movies, it’s especially welcome to watch a movie of theirs that actually moves.) And Asa Butterfield continues to prove that he may well have the chops to move past the dangerous trappings of the child actor, into the realm of other confident young leading men. Everyone acquits themselves nicely, and Gavin Hood’s script doesn’t feel particularly dumbed-down, neither for fans of Orson Scott Card’s series or for the uninitiated. What it does feel, however, is hurried. So, yes, it’s nice that Ender’s Game is on the move, but it’d be awfully nice if the film slowed down every once in a while.
— Josh Spiegel