There are so many ways an adaptation of “Ender’s Game” could have gone wrong. The book is beloved and genre fans are notoriously hard to please. Entrusting the fate of a big budget blockbuster to child actors is always a gamble. Space-set sci-fi movies can end up looking generic and indistinguishable from others. Etc. Etc. So it’s a pleasant surprise to be able to say that Gavin Hood exceeded expectations on his adaptation of the Orson Scott Card sci-fi classic, a cool, fun and original-looking film that doesn’t delve too deep but is entertaining as hell.
Card created and Hood brought to the big screen a futuristic world where earth has barely survived an invasion by an alien race called the Formics. To battle the superior intellect of their opponents, Earth’s leaders have decided that children, with their growing up on computer games and more fearless nature, are the planet’s best hope to battle the Formics if they ever return. It’s a clever concept to allow brainier, more introverted children (ie, like those reading Card’s books) to take center stage and become action heroes.
Asa Butterfield, who was a bit stiff in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” makes that work for him here as Ender Wiggins, a particularly gifted gamer and strategist who is moved quickly through the ranks of Battle School, with Harrison Ford’s Commander Graff believing that Ender’s genius brain, coupled with a violent streak and rebellious nature, make him the perfect guy to lead the next army against the Formics. To prepare, Ender and his fellow students engage in practice battles against each other and computer programs which simulate Formics’ real movements and real space battle environments.
The special effects in “Ender’s Game” are beautifully rendered, purposeful and specific and must be ranked among the film’s highlights. The zero-gravity Battle Room where the children stage simulated battles by contorting their bodies into formations to counter attacks from the other team is an especially fun setting with some really cool action sequences. For later sequences, Hood made a conscious decision to not use 3D because so much of the sequences take place in deep space, and it’s clearly the right move.
The human stories, moralistic in simple ways, are less interesting than the epic battle sequences, but Hailee Steinfeld’s Petra, Ender’s best friend and chief ally, who becomes so simply by refusing to ostracize and antagonize him, provides a nice, gentle counterpart to the mathematical and strategic nature of the rest of the film. Another standout amongst the young cast is Moises Arias, the “Kings of Summer” comedic relief unexpectedly playing it completely straight as a bullying authority figure who of course butts heads with Ender immediately.
Because of the simulated nature of the action, the stakes never feel too real or too heavy, and it’s to the film’s advantage because it allows the audience to take in the gorgeous effects and battle sequences on a pure entertainment level without too much worry. It also helps pack the emotional punch in the final act when Ender learns of the secrets that have been kept from him. Butterfield performs ably in these scenes and the social message is precise and exacting in its delivery, but it won’t be the takeaway from the film. The audience is more likely to leave the theater thinking about how awesome it would be to go into the Battle Room, and that’s the beauty and strength of “Ender’s Game.”