Gavin Hood, director of the recent X-Men Origins: Wolverine does what is probably fair to say his best work so far in Ender’s Game. You can tell, watching the film, that he’s familiar with not only the simple text of the original book, but the experience it gives the reader.
For non-readers, the story is laid out quickly. Earth has suffered a war with an insectoid alien race called Formics. In preparation for another war, they are training and recruiting children, who have more tactical strategy skills with the video-game-like technology they fight with. We immediately meet the titular Ender, who decides to deal with some bullies at school in a very final and brutal manner, putting a child in the hospital. Colonel Graff, played by Harrison Ford, is impressed by Ender’s ruthlessness, and convinces him to enlist in Battle School, where Ender flies through the ranks until he ends up in Command School, where his destiny awaits.
The film does make some changes from the book. It gives a more straight-forward view of Ender’s brother, Peter, and Ender’s related struggles with his own violent tendencies and psychology, which loses a lot of the moral and psychological aspect of the story. Harrison Ford, meanwhile, is perhaps too kindly a figure for the manipulative Colonel Graff, and his arguments with Major Anderson (Viola Davis) over his lack of compassion for Ender ring a little false because of this.
Also somewhat shortchanged is Bean (played by Aramis Knight), a prominent character in the books, in favor of Hailee Steinfeld’s Petra, who is played more as a supportive love interest for Ender, and later, a stand-in for his sister Valentine. The decision to portray Petra as a more passive, compassionate character is a strange one, especially given that Steinfeld is more than capable of playing an aggressive young woman, as she proved in the Coen brothers’ True Grit. Steinfeld’s one assertive line in the film – that she has “more balls” than any of the boys on her team – is undercut by the jokey, self-deprecating manner she was likely directed to deliver it in.
The overall tone of the book is well captured by Asa Butterfield’s performance as Ender. It’s a difficult character to play, a viciously clever but also vulnerable and moral child, but Butterfield manages it well. There are moments where his delivery edges towards the stilted side, but it’s less distracting for Ender than it would be for a more emotive character.
The film’s visuals, though, are probably the most compelling reason to pay for the movie ticket. The Battle Room, a zero-gravity training room for the cadets at Battle School, is especially well visualized. It captures a space that was, when reading the book, difficult to conceptualize, while also being exactly what the reader wanted to see. The role of Ender’s Mind-Game, a video game that feeds off his own subconscious, is cut down, but its sequences are some of the most captivating in the film. The battle simulations may not be terribly impressive to anyone who’s seen the new Star Trek films or similar, but they are well done and at times quite beautiful.
Ender’s Game is a satisfying realization of the source material, and a fairly solid sci-fi action movie. Viewers mileage may vary depending on if they’ve read the book or not, and if so, if they liked it. The book had an amoral, uncomfortable feeling that hangs over the sci-fi action and emotional struggles of the piece, and although it simplifies and streamlines the plot, the movie captures this same feeling – for better or for worse.