We’re getting plenty of these YA novel adaptations at the moment, and even though most range in quality from average to downright terrible, they show no sign of stopping. This surge of interest in such properties may have played a part in finally bringing Ender’s Game to the screen, a prospect that’s been on the cards practically since the novel’s publication in 1985. A very long time in development rarely indicates a great finished product, but I’m pleased to say that Ender’s Game is much better than I had imagined it would be.
The film effectively introduces its vision of the future in its opening scenes, outlining the unsuccessful alien invasion decades prior, and humanity’s mission to locate and train up their most gifted children to prepare for the eventual war. One such child is Ender Wiggin, a boy with a difficult home life, who is one day selected by Colonel Graff, a military leader who wants to take Ender off to battle school, believing he could be the one to save the world. If it all sounds a bit like a Sci-Fi Harry Potter just remember the source predates the first Potter book by over 10 years.
Ender’s Game doesn’t spend a great deal of time on Earth before launching Ender and his fellow young recruits off to the space-bound training school. There, the film presents a believably tense dynamic between the students, along with some exciting zero-gravity exercises. One of the challenges faced by any director in adapting the popular book (which I only got round to reading last year), is that large amounts of the training Ender goes through are simulations, not the most obviously cinematic of exercises. South African director Gavin Hood (delivering much more on the promise of his Oscar-winning breakthrough Tsotsi than X-Men Origins: Wolverine ever did) brings them to life in a tremendous fashion, with dazzling, immersive special effects, always enabling the audience to feel like they are part of the action, and never just watching Ender playing videogames. The film possesses great visuals beyond just CGI too, all of the spaceships, interiors, and technology of this future are excellently designed and realised.
A big departure the film makes from the book is in the ages of Ender and his fellow recruits, perhaps unavoidably. Ender is only 6 at the start of the book and grows up to be 11 over its course. This film compresses the events into a period of about a year with Ender being in his early teens throughout. It’s not a problem for the film though, and Hugo star Asa Butterfield manages to carry the film as its reluctant hero, convincing in the emotional and tactical battle scenes, if a bit less so when required to perform physical fights with his wiry frame. None of the other young cast members let the team down, but don’t get to make a big impression either, bar Kings of Summer star Moisés Arias as Ender’s arrogant Commander. The film has some excellent performers on the more experienced end though, with Harrison Ford perfectly cast as the tough Colonel who recruits Ender, and actually seeming to care about the film he’s in for a change.
The condensed nature of the adaptation does unfortunately yield some pacing problems for the film, and during the training section (the bulk of the film) it often becomes quite hard to tell how much time is supposed to have passed between sequences. The film keeps the focus on the main story though, accomplishing the tricky task of convincing why children are required for this job, and ever-so thankfully avoids throwing in a love-triangle sub-plot involving True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld that it easily could have (I do wonder if the studio wanted one). Ender’s Game also successfully retains the novel’s ending, which feels very daring when at the conclusion of a big tent-pole movie, enabling it to emerge as a teen centred sci-fi adventure film that poses some genuinely thought-provoking questions. Oh, and it’s much better than The Hunger Games.