I’d heard of “Ender’s Game” before but never got around to reading it. When I learned they were making a movie of it, I figured I should probably check it out before I saw the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and was curious about how it would be adapted for the screen given the philosophical and internal nature of Ender’s story. Adapting a beloved classic sci-fi novel into a movie can be fraught with peril. Just ask Disney how “John Carter” went. Add to that the author’s tendency to make inflammatory political statements and you’ve got to admire the courage needed to bring “Ender’s Game” to the big screen at all. Thankfully, writer/ director Gavin Hood has done a brilliant job of bringing this thought-provoking and complex novel to the screen, sacrificing only what is necessary to make the story flow as a motion picture.
Banish all thoughts of Hood’s previous directorial effort “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” from your thoughts, because freed of the odious corporate influences at play during the making of that particular dud, he brings a grandeur and majesty to this film that elevates it way above the trite and lazy marketing pushing it as ‘Harry Potter meets Star Wars’. The cinematography is absolutely stunning and the visuals, especially those in space will linger in the memory long after you’ve left the cinema. The battle school and its zero gravity arena are beautifully realised and the battles which take place are spellbinding. It’s a real blessing that this was held back for an autumn release as it would have been awkward and out of place in amongst the garish and gratuitous crowded summer blockbuster season. With this and “Gravity”, it’s shaping up to be a great time for mature, intelligent science fiction.
Purists may find fault with Hood’s script which does drop a significant subplot of the novel and streamlines many of the character arcs so that they directly serve Ender’s journey but as movie adaptations go, it’s a balanced and insightful one. In fact, I was more surprised by how much of the more esoteric themes and scenes of the novel they kept in. The biggest casualties are Ender’s brother Peter and sister Valentine, whose roles are significantly reduced in importance from the novel although still play their parts. There’s only shallow exploration of other supporting characters such as Bean, Bernard, Petra and Alai but all contribute fully to the depth of Ender’s moral conflict. That’s not to say that the supporting characters are poorly served or underwritten. There’s a lot there and, if you’ve read the book, you’ll subconsciously fill in the gaps yourself. By the end of Hood’s film, Ender and his crew have become a far more mature, capable and convincing starship command crew than the hormonal hyperactivity of JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek 90210” films.
Asa Butterfield is perfectly cast as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, bringing an authenticity and moral complexity to the boy born to be a tactical genius but plagued by the consequences of what he is asked to do. The other young cast members play their parts well and even Harrison Ford – Hollywood’s laziest working actor – actually does more than phone in his performance, something he hasn’t really done since “What Lies Beneath”. Ford gives the gruff and callous Colonel Graff just the right amount of world weary ambiguity and ruthlessness, especially in the scenes he shares with Viola Davis’ Major Anderson. Ben Kingsley delivers his second transformative role of the year as Formic War hero Mazer Rackham, infusing the role with an intensity that makes the most of his limited screen time. But there is little doubt, even up against heavy hitters like Ford and Kingsley, Asa Butterfield owns this movie completely – he commands the screen as expertly as Ender learns to command the fleet.
While retaining some of the novel’s violence, it is nowhere near as explicit on screen as in the book and I took my seven year old son to see “Ender’s Game” (at his request) without concern beforehand or regret afterwards and he was captivated by it for the whole two hours. This is a masterful, thought-provoking, intelligent and spectacular piece of science fiction which doesn’t shy away from the more difficult themes of the book. For me it’s a candidate for film of the year.