Writer: Gavin Hood
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Jimmy Pinchak, Viola Davis
Running time: 114mins
The lowdown: After almost three decades in development Hell, Orson Scott Card’s classic of young adult sci-fi finally arrives. And the reaction is a surprised phew, rather than disappointment at yet another unsatisfying blockbuster. Rising star Asa Butterfield makes a confident bid for early leading man status as troubled child genius Ender, recruited into a brutal space Academy to train for war against an alien race. Harrison Ford makes a welcome return to sci-fi as his gruff, Machiavellian commander. The book’s darker themes are retained, blended with impressive SFX, making this Starship Troopers Jr. and one of the year’s more unusual high concept epics.
The full verdict: Easy to see why different producers have battled with bringing Ender’s Game to the screen.
Back in 1985, the success of Orson Scott Card’s novel promised the potential for a new Star Wars.
And after J.K. Rowling conjured up a new phenomenon in the early noughties, Ender’s Game suddenly looked like Stars Wars meets Harry Potter.
Yet, while this adaptation features Han Solo himself, writer/director Gavin Hood’s largely faithful adaptation keeps the “war makes fascists of us all” theme of the book. Not many action figure merchandising possibilities there then and revelations of Card’s reactionary views on gay marriage must have had marketing departments crying into their box office projections.
The story picks up 50 years after an alien invasion by the bug like Formics (“Buggers” in the book, subtle Orson…) has been repelled at great cost to humankind. A brutalised society recruits children into a military academy to see who possesses the intelligence and killer instinct required to lead Earth’s armies into battle.
Prime candidate Ender Wiggins is dispatched to the orbiting academy and pitted against fellow children in a “might is right” training programme, but at what cost to the young cadets, including Ender’s ally Petra (Steinfeld)?
A fine adaptation of notoriously difficult source material, Ender’s Game does a good job of depicting the book’s pessimistic, dog-eat-dog world. A world where children are seen as clay to be molded into warriors through video games employed by a manipulative military elite, characterised by Ford’s Colonel Graff and Kingsley’s mysterious tattooed tactician (with a Maori accent by way of South Africa and Sexy Beast).
As Verhoeven did with Starship Troopers, director Hood takes a subversive idea and manages to place it alongside spectacular sci-fi action without leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
Scenes in the zero-gravity battle room where the cadets play Quidditch style war games are stunningly realised against a backdrop of the Earth that recalls Cuaron’s Gravity, while video game battle simulations are true to the book but seem ever more relevant in today’s Playstation world.
Hood ups the ages of the children and compresses the novel’s time span to a single year, while also ditching an earthbound subplot featuring Ender’s siblings that would give actors Abigail Breslin and Jimmy Pinchak something to do.
He also keeps the novel’s late-in-the-day twists that take the story into places far, far away from Hogwarts or the triumphant destruction of the Death Star.
All of which means despite an open-ending and numerous sequels to draw upon, it’s likely to be Game Over for Ender’s franchise. Bonus points for effort though.