Author Orson Scott Card has referred to his seminal sci-fi novel Ender’s Game as “unadaptable.” But that hasn’t stopped him, and others, from trying. Nearly 30 years after its initial release, the book has finally seen the light of day on screen, courtesy of writer/director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The result is an admirable attempt that nonetheless may not find much of an audience outside of fans of the source material.
A significant plus is that the film does, in fact, work. The book’s major plot points and even its potent pacifist themes are present and accounted for. In the world of adaptation, that is rarer than it should be. On a futuristic Earth, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a gifted youth recruited by the military to join a program that trains child soldiers in battle simulations to help fend off a repeat attack by alien invaders known as the Formics, who devastated humanity in a previous attack. Ender is recruited by the intimidating Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who sees potential in the tension between the boy’s calculating intellect and startling propensity for violence. Perhaps he is the one that can win the war.
The film’s story faces problems similar to this year’s earlier sci-fi film, Elysium. Ender is “the one,” an almost-mythical figure tasked with saving humanity from a young age. It’s a common sci-fi trope, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. The film does a poor job explaining why Ender is so important, other than the fact that he just is. Card’s book offset this through a complex side-story detailing Ender’s gifted siblings. That difficult material is understandably axed, but nothing replaces it, leaving a hole that is hard to ignore.
One reason the book has always seemed so unfilmable is that it takes place mostly in ship corridors and computer rooms. But Hood and cinematographer Donald McAlpine have created a lovingly crafted and visually exhilarating version of Card’s world. Ships, space suits and the battle arena look fantastic, even better than I envisioned them in the book. Although we see very little of the Formics, their design when we do is intriguing.
What Ender’s Game gains in production design it unfortunately loses in its acting. Ender is a somewhat icy character, and in that regard Butterfield’s performance fits the bill. But that doesn’t make his performance any more engaging. His acting is mostly steely reflection punctuated by occasional outbursts of emotion, similar to his role in Hugo. He’s not a bad actor, but he’ll need to either keep picking these very specific, icy roles or expand his acting chops.
Nearly everyone else in the movie gives equally one-note performances. Harrison Ford doesn’t do much beyond looking angry and yelling, and gifted young actors such as Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin are given precious little to work with. The standout performance is the magnificent Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson. While Graff sees his soldiers as chess pieces, Anderson sees them as children, as they so rightly are.
The performances aren’t helped by dialogue that often reduces conversations to grand specifying. And yet, the film is briskly entertaining, clocking in at 114 minutes while managing to keep much of what made the book so engrossing. In particular, the ending retains its potent antiwar punch, bolstered by a great late-game twist. Unlike the rest of the movie, the conclusion leaves you thinking.
Ender’s Game is perhaps the best we could have hoped for from an adaptation of the wildly influential book. It’s visually impressive and retains enough of the book’s potent antiwar commentary. And yet, ultimately, the film feels slight. Maybe it’s the grandiose dialogue, or the fact that many of the actors often look a bit too lost in space. Or perhaps it’s yet another example of how difficult it is for the medium of film to convey the raw power of the written word.