Ender’s Game is a film that’s been floating around Hollywood since the day it landed on American book shelves – in 2013 it was finally realised as a motion picture, and it may just prove to be the film that revitalised local director Gavin Hood’s career. The question is, does this complex work of science-fiction find it’s way faithfully to the silver screen, or does it lose its essence on the cutting room floor?
In the distant future, Colonel Graff and the military are recruiting children as the only hope for our survival in the battle against an alien threat. Brighter than the rest, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a child soldier who is more than a little different to his comrades, and through his training, we discover the horrors and duality of the challenge in store for him. Put through a psychological evaluation, Ender finds himself on an orbiting space-station where he will train with his peers for the task of commanding Earth’s space fleet in one final attack against the Formix.
Ender’s Game is a blend of hard and soft sci-fi and should appeal to anyone who enjoys their films on the commercial side but with a little added subtext.
The Bottom Line
Outside of his rather extremist ideals, Orson Scott Card is more fondly remembered as a writer and even more so for his science-fiction epic Ender’s Game. I braved its covers a number of years ago but Card’s writing style never truly grabbed my attention (from what I surmise, it’s a militaristic book packed with social subtext).
Gavin Hood is best known to South African’s as the Academy Award winning director behind Tsotsi, and to the world, the director who was shoehorned into the god-awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie. Thankfully, Hood, like the phoenix, has risen from the ashes for another swing at Hollywood blockbuster territory, and this time it isn’t the misfire of his previous effort. It’s clear that Hood had a vision with Ender’s Game and I get the feeling that this is a project that he wanted to approach as a fan of the source, unlike his Wolverine attempt, and his passion for this sci-fi tale is what sells the film, just as it did Tsotsi in the past.
Why have I started the review with these two profiles? If there is one freedom that any director values at the most fundamental level, it is creative freedom, and said freedom is an element that has been lacking in Gavin Hood’s career. Ender’s Game is no different and Orson Scott Card has ensured that he has the final say on any decision, including the casting. Card knows his own work better than anyone, but he isn’t a filmmaker and even though I will not hesitate to praise Ender’s Game for it’s accessibility and mainstream appeal, I cannot help but wonder what film we would have been treated to had it been handled by a more experienced cinematic genius such as Ridley Scott with complete control over the script.
Ender’s Game is no Blade Runner – not by a long shot – in fact, it’s more akin to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, which was a notoriously drastic departure from the Robert A. Heinlein novel that reduced the overly militaristic outlook of the written work into a campy (albeit entertaining) sci-fi romp. Ender’s Game doesn’t step into the campy territory, but it does away with much of the message of Card’s celebrated literary achievement. The film retains the base idea of what Card illustrated – especially in the final act – but much of the subtext is sacrificed in order to preserve the entertainment factor, and entertaining it is. Thanks to some top notch performances from Asa Butterfield; Viola Davis; and remarkably, Harrison Ford in his return to science-fiction – Ender’s Game is a film that looks and sounds the part of an epic outer-space adventure where no expense seems to have been spared.
The real winner of this film is the visual design, which blends the cutting edge with the familiar. Everything has a sparkling Hollywood sheen that has become commonplace in cinema for several years but whereas everything in After Earth and Oblivion carried the resemblance of the latest iPod, there is a notable flair to Ender’s Game, a throwback to the designs that adorned the sci-fi pulp novels of yesteryear. To the untrained eye, the visual cues may go unnoticed, but there’s a definite reference and it gives the film a rare context that pushes its strength just that little bit farther.
Ender’s Game is by no means a failure as an adaptation, it could have been so much more, but it is successful as a mass-market science-fiction that holds a few surprises and a plot that is far more morose than it lets off. As with the novel, the film carries a serious demeanor from beginning to end so those looking for charm and light-hearted comedic wit best not expect such frivolities. This is hard science-fiction with a mainstream treatment, which doesn’t always work in its favour, but delivers with its stunning visuals and enigmatic plot.