I have read the novel on which this was based. And three sequels, the first of which (Speaker for the Dead) is an all time favorite. Comparatively, I did not think the first book was really exceptional. It reads like YA fiction, very basic language, very basic plotting. I had hopes that a big, splashy Hollywood production would fill it out into something special.
Thankfully, under the direction of Gavin Hood (who had a lot to answer for after X-Men Origins: Wolverine killed a new franchise with just one film) this version of Ender’s Game does just that. Though, remarkably, given my earlier description of the book, it does it by staying very close to the source material. And, even more wonderful, the film doesn’t back away from the weirder aspects of the science fiction.
It’s an unspecified time in the future, a few decades after a brutal assault by an insect-like race called the Formics nearly destroyed humanity. Ever since, Earth has been building weapons and armies to defend against a follow-on invasion. The only thing is, everyone is worried that humanity can never outwit the hive-mind of the Formics in battle a second time.
Enter Battle School. The most promising youngsters are sent up to this orbiting school to learn everything they can about the Formics, about space combat, about leadership, about tactics, about everything. The goal is to filter all of these children, who aren’t saddled with adult preconceptions, down to one who will be the ultimate leader to defeat the Formics.
That leader is Ender Wiggin, a boy in a constant war with himself. Should he have the compassion of his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) or the killer instict of his brother Peter? This dichtomy is played out again and again in the people he interacts with. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis). Team leader Bonzo (Moises Arias) and fellow trainee Petra (Hailee Steinfeld). There’s even a final pairing in the last bit of the film, but I won’t spoil that for any uninitiated readers.
Every name I listed there is an actor that does amazing work, but it all hangs on Asa Butterfield as Ender. He manages to have a still, quiet quality that implies the frantic racing of his mind, whether trying to solve a computer game, outwit a bully, or save humanity. You can see his toughness and his compassion fighting in almost every scene. This is the kind of nuance that Orson Scott Card implied in the novel, but didn’t leap off the page the way a visual performance can.
The other visual components are, of course, the special effects, which are really quite extraordinary. The battle at the end, while amazing, isn’t as stunning as some of the Battle Room scenes (where the kids play at war in a zero-G arena) or the “footage” of the climatic battle of the first war. Everything about this movie is simply gorgeously shot.
This is now one of my favorite sci-fi films. Here’s hoping someone has the guts to try to adapt the next (far less cinematic, but so very good) book in the series.