There are moments in the sleek-but-not-too-flashy adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game when the film takes flight. It feels like child’s play, and the audience forgets briefly that the on-screen kids, the smartest in the world, are being groomed to kill at a Battle School hovering in space. In a transparent romper room of sorts with zero gravity, the warriors-in-training fumble, soar, and somersault in mid-air, with a spectacular view of Earth below, in a sequence that rivals anything in the 3-D special effects extravaganza Gravity.
However, the screenplay hews closer to the book, rather than following a potential franchise template. Writer/director Gavin Hood resists the temptation to downplay the novel’s anti-authoritarian and imperialism themes. That’s one advantage of science fiction: the futuristic setting lends itself to plenty of historical interpretations. And, instead of concluding on a triumphant note, it’s introspective and darn right somber, if not subversive, for a big-budget film.
Card takes the axiom, “Give me a child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man,” and gives it a sinister twist. In his 1985 novel, the impressionable but intellectually savvy Ender is only six years old when he’s recruited and molded into a brave commander. The film adds another six years to his age (hello, Hunger Games demographic).
Ender has been monitored for years by the good cop/bad cop handlers Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis, in maternal mode) and the glib and gruff Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) to see how the preteen deals with anger and aggression—if he has the killer instinct. They need a hero to save mankind from an attack of the bugger invaders, aliens who arrived on Earth 50 years earlier and haven’t been back since.
Crucial to the director’s tone is the casting of lead actor Asa Butterfield (Hugo). Tight lipped, he dares to be standoffish; he’s a hard nut to crack. With his steely blue eyes and guarded expressions, he almost looks like he’s from The Village of the Damned. And the director could have gone the easy route with cheap, gross-out humor involving vomit floating in space; it stays mostly in the gag bag.
Card was ahead of his time, foreseeing the equivalent of iPads and violent video games, called desktops and mind games here. The color palette and production design call to mind a number of sci-fi motifs: the elegance of 2001; the reptilian, viscous Alien prototype for the appearance of the buggers; and a wardrobe with a more modern minimalist design than Tron: Legacy (yup, both films share the same costume designer, Christine Bieselin Clark).
The first half engages the most, with Ender as the new kid in school, making many friends and one obnoxious, sneering enemy; dealing with older kids; and thinking outside the box. In the second hour, Hood has chiseled a lot away from the book, obliterating back story and subplots. For example, the roles of Ender’s beloved sister (and her secret alias) and his psychotic older brother are reduced. In fact, there’s enough material for at least two movies. Although the pace is light on its feet, it clips the story line. The two-hour running barely contains the saga, but, of course, there’s at least story line left dangling and waiting for a follow-up.
Ender’s Game was shot as a traditional 2-D film, and made for the wide IMAX screen.
Adapted & Directed by Gavin Hood