Ender’s Game exists in a weird limbo of movie adaptation. It’s not handled so poorly it’s an affront to the original book, but it doesn’t make much of an impression at all, which is unfortunate given how powerful the story is.
I blame much of this not on the young actors involved, but on director Gavin Hood, best known for taking a character audiences loved and putting him in a movie everyone hated for X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
His film has to fast-forward through the nuance of the original book. Yes, it’s something all adaptations must face, lest they all be five hours long, but some do it better than others, and Ender’s Game doesn’t do it very well at all.
The Earth is still recovering from an alien invasion fifty years past. The bug-like invaders almost conquered Earth, and now to ensure that doesn’t happen again, Earth is taking the fight to them. Children are said to be able to process complex commands better than adults, so “Battle School” takes genius wunderkinds and trains them to be generals through an incredibly tough program few can ever pass. They’re searching for that one child, that one tiny general who has the ability to make the right decisions to lead them to victory.
We’re told that Ender is special, and we’re treated to him doing very “special” things like outsmarting bullies, winning floating laser tag matches and fighting virtual wars on simulators. Unfortunately, each event is so hurried that there’s little relation between one and the other, and each happens incredibly fast. We see Ender play a war game on a futuristic tablet, then he’s transported to a Battle School squad for some aforementioned laser tag and he’s commanding his own squad by the next scene. Then, for reasons that elude the audience, his ability to command twelve teammates around a room allows him to suddenly issue orders to thousands of warships simultaneously.
Granted, all these events happen in the book, but there’s far more connecting tissue than what we’re allowed here, and it never felt hurried or disjointed. It’s why I don’t think the book really lends itself to a film adaptation, and certainly not to one as bland as this.
I understand the need to focus on the action, as there really isn’t all that much, but scenes like the zero-gravity Battle School fights aren’t handled with anything approaching grace or excitement. It’s like if Harry Potter failed to properly reproduce the thrilling quidditch matches from the books. Here, it’s just a lot of floating and bumping into things, and only Ender ever does anything halfway cool in any match.
The same is true of Command School, the final stage of the program before graduation to real war. Granted, these virtual dogfights are more exciting than laser tag, but only the final fight has any sort of lasting impact. More could have been done here as well.
The book’s final twist is handled well, though they may have been hinting at it a bit too strongly ahead of the finale. I won’t spoil it, but at this point in your life, if you’re reading this review on this site, you really should have read Ender’s Game.
Newcomer Asa Butterfield does a pretty great job as Ender, given what he has to work with. Child casts are always risky, but between Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin, any acting problems aren’t on their end. Rather, I wasn’t very impressed with Harrison Ford as Ender’s teacher/antagonist/commanding officer, as I haven’t been with much of anything Harrison Ford has done in a few decades. And Ben Kingsley’s promised appearance is so brief, I’m amazed it didn’t get cut entirely even though it’s a significant plot point.
Perhaps to someone unfamiliar with Ender’s Story, the movie will have the same impact on them that the book did on me. But with so much skipped and lackluster visuals and action, I kind of doubt that will be the case.
2.5 out of 5 stars