By Melissa Agar
Ender’s Game (Summit Entertainment, 2013) – Director: Gavin Hood. Writer: Gavin Hood (s/p). Based on Ender’s Game, a novel by Orson Scott Card. Cast: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Khylin Rhambo, Conor Carroll, & Moises Arias. Color, 114 minutes.
Before there was Harry, there was Ender.
In 1985, Orson Scott Card published Ender’s Game, the futuristic tale of a world where children are trained to be warriors and the young boy who emerges as the “chosen one” who will save the world from certain destruction. Or something like that. I will confess that I’ve never read the book despite the fact that several of my friends in college raved about it and count it amongst their favorite books (or at least they did in 1991). I can’t attest to how faithfully the (I’m sure) long-awaited film adaptation is to the original source, but I can say that the adaptation is a dark, often cumbersome film that feels bereft of heart and soul.
It is the future. Fifty years prior to the start of the film, Earth has survived an intergalactic battle with a race of beings called the Formics. Since that time, the international military has begun training bright children to become warriors. Colonel Graff (Ford) has his eye on young Ender Wiggin (Butterfield), a brilliant but dark boy whose older siblings have tried to enter the battle program and failed. Graff believes Ender is the great hope for the human race, the one who will lead them into battle against the Formics once more and save humanity from invasion and destruction. When Ender faces a nasty bully with icy cold determination, Graff has all the proof he needs and whisks the boy off to the battle academy where Ender begins proving his mettle and natural ability to lead. He quickly moves through the ranks from “launchie” to commanding his own squad before ultimately finding himself on the verge of graduating to full-blown leader in a pre-emptive strike on the Formics. Will Ender be able to strike a balance between his compassion and violent tendencies and be the hope Graff believes him to be?
While the story is largely engaging, it’s also by now pretty familiar and formulaic. Its influence on many of the YA novels (and film adaptations of said novels) that have emerged in the nearly 30 years since its debut is clear. I found myself more than once having to remind myself that this wasn’t a Harry Potter rip-off but an ancestor to The Boy Who Lived. Ender’s Game, though, suffers at times in comparison to its progeny. In Harry Potter, we have an engaging but flawed young protagonist who struggles with the destiny that is dumped on his shoulders. Ender, however, often comes across as a bit prickly and lacks vulnerability or the sort of self-doubt that fuels our investment in this type of protagonist. We spend a lot of time having others talk about Ender’s potential flaws, but those flaws all seem to magically become strengths as he faces obstacle after obstacle with brilliant problem-solving skills. He earns a devoted cadre of followers, but we get little sense of why these kids, all seemingly quite talented in their own right, have such faith in Ender other than the actors read the script that told them Ender is the Chosen One.
At times, the script seems to lack focus. I would have appreciated a little more exposition, a complaint I rarely have in films, but with the futuristic setting, there were little bits of information dropped that seemed like they should be significant but were glossed over. I suspect the book explains some of these things more completely, but the passing comments that are dropped (such as comments about Ender being a “forbidden” third child) without further explanation left me waiting for those comments to gain more significance, only to be disappointed when it never returns. It all makes the plot feel as if it’s not fully baked and leaves the audience feeling a bit alienated.
It’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t quite come together as well as it could have since it leaves a talented cast afloat with characters that lack true complexity. Ford, VDavis, and Kingsley do their best with characters that at best are underwritten. (Davis, in particular, has a character that seems to be building toward some significance in Ender’s journey but disappears just as she seems most needed.)
As for the younger members of the cast, Breslin as Ender’s sweet older sister Valentine does the best she can with a role lacking in any real meat. Stansfield plays Petra, one of Ender’s battalion who takes him under her wing and helps train him when their arrogant commander (Arias) refuses. There is a clear and instant connection between Petra and Ender that we are supposed to sense, but the script doesn’t allow that enough time to develop. As for Butterfield, he is a remarkably talented young man. I absolutely adored his work in Hugo. Here, he is saddled with some pretty trite dialogue which he delivers with tremendous heart and conviction. He does his best with a role that is largely wrapped in enigma. He’s a young actor with a great future. Let’s just hope that future holds more Hugos and fewer Enders.
Ender’s Game is not a terrible film. It’s visually pretty incredible to look at, and a gifted cast does the best that it can with a hollow script. I can’t attest as to how many of the film’s flaws stem from the source material and how much is a weak adaptation, but the film left me feeling largely detached despite an ending that I suspect was supposed to make me feel something more than, “huh” at the end. It’s a noble but ultimately empty effort.