Ender’s Game is the rare kind of science fiction where character development is more intriguing than interstellar space battle. Based on the award-winning novel by the controversial author Orson Scott Card, writer/director Gavin Hood’s adaptation stays true to the source material, even if it trims some important details. Still, the core story about a young genius’ ascent from outsider to military commander is still intact, and Hood hits all the right emotional beats. It is no small task since the limits of the medium force Hood and his cast to find other ways to show what, precisely, Ender is thinking. During the crucial final minutes, it’s as if external forces constrain Hood’s vision. The ambition is there, but perhaps the resources are not.
In the not-too-distant future, an alien race arrives at Earth and nearly destroys the planet. A miraculous Hail Mary attack saves humanity, and ever since the military has done nothing but plan their big offensive. Instead of looking to older leaders, decorated soldiers like Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) seek out bright young minds since they’re way of thinking is unmoored by traditional military tactics. Graff’s most promising pupil is Ender (Asa Butterfield), a nerdy kid who’s burdened by a ruthless violent streak, as well as an unusual sense of compassion. When we meet Ender, he’s a promising cadet, and Graff along with the psychologist Anderson (Viola Davis) manipulate him just to see how he’ll react. His reaction is pitch-perfect, Graff thinks, so Ender leaves his family for a training facility in space.
Hood spends the plurality of Ender’s Game at this facility, where the tests and fellow cadets grow increasingly challenging for Ender. Hood and Butterfield shrewdly preserve Ender’s status as a thoughtful observer; the patient camera work and Butterfield’s quiet fury suggest that there’s more than just garden variety adolescent alienation. Ender’s Game is a coming-of-age story before it’s science fiction, except there’s more complexity because Ender must deal with his conscience, and how that effects his relentless superiority over his peers.
There is a well-realized sub-plot between Ender and Bonzo (The Kings of Summer’s Moises Arias), who plays a ruthless squad leader in the upper ranks of the academy. He’s cruel and frustrating – he’s the closest thing Hood has to a villain – and Ender rises above his level and dispatches with him diplomatically. The conclusion of the business with Gonzo sets up a complex behavioral puzzle, one that has few satisfactory answers.
There are is a lot more here than dialogue-driven scenes between twisted young super-soldiers. Hood and his production team weave complex, dizzying imagery with striking moments of visual clarity. During the simulated space battles, the alien ships move like a menacing random tentacles. Sometimes there are thousands of ships on the screen, yet Hood preserves spatial intelligence.
But for all the intense space battles, the best sequences are in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity proving ground where Ender and the cadets play a glorified version of Capture the Flag. Hood’s camera spins with a first-person perspective, and it’s just the right amount of dizzying; the action sequences convey the sort of physical logic that’s required for such a competition. Given all the spinning parts and top-of-the-line special effects, it’s surprising Hood chose not to film Ender’s Game in 3D. I usually welcome a deviation from 3D – the effect always gives me a headache – but this might be an example where 3D would be immersive.
Ender’s Game has a terrific supporting cast, including Ben Kingsley as ruthless trainer and Hailee Steinfeld as Ender’s second in command, yet they’re all ancillary to Butterfield who, like Ender himself, must carry it all on his shoulders. Butterfield rises to the challenge because he makes no excuses for Ender; there is an early scene where he nearly beats a classmate to death, and Butterfield somehow communicates how the brutality is also a clear-headed calculation on his part. As Graff, Ford is a foil to Ender, yet Ford sleepwalks through the performance (more than any other former A-lister, Ford nowadays seems to bumbles through every role he’s given). Hood has more success with his younger actors: aside from Butterfield and Arias, Abigail Breslin does the most she can as Ender’s gentle-hearted sister.
The most striking thing about Ender’s Game is how it eschews a traditional payoff in favor of moral questions. After the climax, Ender has a line that demonstrates more militaristic nuance than any teenage character would normally have a right to say. All these ideas inspire Hood, yet his film is practically exploding with exposition. Surprisingly, he would benefit from a longer running time: it would give Hood the opportunity to fully explore the meditative denouement, and longtime fans will surely be upset at how Ender’s violent brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) is given the high hat. Somehow I doubt many will be satisfied by Ender’s Game. Longtime fans will be disappointed, and neophytes may scratch their heads in confusion. The good news is that Hood’s adaptation is good enough so that the neophytes may pick up the book for answers.