The lights dimmed and a quote from Ender, the titular character, flashed on the screen. Immediately I was thrust into the world of a future Earth still reeling from a global attack decades earlier that left its citizens—and more importantly, its military—in an unrelenting state of unease.
I sat back, grinning. This was going to be good.
Ender’s Game, director-screenwriter Gavin Hood’s first big budget film since X-Men Origins: Wolverine, captivates from scene one with its staggering visuals and booming sounds enveloping the theater (the IMAX doesn’t hurt, either.)
As we meet Ender, a sensitive and curiously icy young boy, we start to see why he’s the chosen one to lead an attack against the alien race that attacked Earth so many years ago: His perception of fight tactics and strategies are unparalleled among his peers. Because of this, Col. Hyram Graff (always-gruffy Harrison Ford) whisks him away to a space station military school with the hope that Ender will become a decorated war hero.
Groomed by Graff to be Earth’s new savior, Ender suffers through the torment of his classmates and the challenges of his superiors, all while rising quickly through the ranks. He knows he’s different, but he struggles with whether or not he likes it that way.
The film would not have survived had Hood chosen the wrong Ender. English actor Asa Butterfield (Hugo) heartily tackles one of the hardest child roles to play in the past 50 years. Thoughtful, compassionate, yet distant from his peers, Ender is one complicated kid, and Butterfield deserves praise for trying – but unfortunately, Hood sticks him with a shallow and emotionless script, forcing Butterfield to reach beyond his means.
The biggest injustice here, though, is the lack of depth. The original story is an engaging commentary on war and humanity, and Ender is a treasure trove of conflict, genius, self-loathing, and love. Most of that doesn’t translate well to the screen; perhaps there’s a good reason studios shied away from the project. It’s tough to encapsulate such an introspective base story in under two hours. To Hood’s credit, he does the best he can, but it falls just flat, leaving much to be desired.
It’d be unfair not to mention the rest of the cast. For a sci-fi film about kids, Ender’s comrades pull through to deliver a convincing performance. Sixteen-year-old Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld provides strong acting chops to the group of youngsters, while Ford, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley offer guidance as Ender’s superiors.
Ender’s Game is a complex piece of sci-fi; it’s no wonder it took 27 years to get it down. The film, a huge risk for director Hood, managed to grasp its source material’s flashiest aspects in a pleasing hour and 44 minutes. Though it may flop due to author and producer Orson Scott Card’s controversial public statements, it’s a good popcorn flick with fun visuals and solid cast.