Film Review: Ender’s Game (M) (USA, 2013)

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Growing up, we always have a couple of books we connect with. For me, before there was Harry Potter and before I could fully appreciate the sheer brilliance of the Hitchhikers series, there was a little 1985 Sci-Fi novel called Ender’s Game. It was the sort of novel, that at nine years old – or thereabouts – I picked it up, read through it and then did it all over again. I got hooked into the world, and I know that I’m not alone in that sentiment.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I have found that I haven’t gone back to reconnect with the text in the way I perhaps should; no doubt I’d have a different reading on it now than I did back then. I have, nonetheless, been closely eyeing the inevitable film release of this much loved book. And finally, after years in development hell, the time has finally arrived.

There were talks through the 90s and indeed the last ten years of developing the book into a film – I understand the first script was written in 1996 by Card himself – and it’s likely a number of factors plagued the production. Rights changing hands as directors pulled out, a lack of talent in the “child actor pool”, the book’s author Orson Scott Card homophobia ruffling feathers, and notably, the technology not quite being there to do the film justice. With the last fact particularly in mind, I dare say it was good they waited until director Gavin Hood took the reigns of the film and its script in 2010 – though I don’t know if that necessarily means it was worth the wait. But before we get to that, let’s give you a run down of the film.

Starring Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield as Andrew Ender Wiggin, the film sits somewhere between the world of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, in which the talented, strategic minds of children are used as a weapon against their enemy – the Zerg-like Formics, who some fifty years earlier (in 2086) attacked earth and killed millions. The brightest children are trained at a battle school with a very cool zero g battle room. None come more talented than Ender, who was literally born for the task and is brought by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) to become a leader of their armies. The book – and indeed the film – raise questions about revenge, the morality and consequences of war, to what end humans (in this case both children and adults) will go to win such a thing and questions the old adage “why can’t we all just get along”. It’s a sentiment that is seems ironic now knowing the author’s stance on things, but I digress… the story does preach the opposite so lets keep our focus here.

The first thing that must be spoken about the film is the casting. It’s spot on. Ford’s grumpy old man vibe that you can’t help but love fits my memory of Graff perfectly, while Ben Kingsley’s half New Zealand, half South African accent (he’s supposed to be the former, and he comes as close to nailing it as you get) and general screen presence is welcomed indeed. Viola Davis is a warm creature who you enjoy every frame with, and the kids are wonderful. Asa is everything you imagined Ender to be, the casting of Bean (Ender’s “Shadow”) was perfect, and No Country for Old Men‘s Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the role of Petra – his replacement sister in space, I suppose is the most apt description of her – is brilliant. The cinematography has its moments to shine and the effects are fantastic. The fusion of digital effects and live action are seamless. The script, however, sits very much in the “room for improvement” box, to a point that even the best acting can’t always make amends.

In its narrative, Ender’s Game struggles with pacing and the expectations of its audience. It was a hard novel to adapt, admittedly – there are few books that sit as far in the main character’s head as this one. But all the same, some aspects could have been dealt with better. We’re thrown into the storyline fairly abruptly – and the end comes in the same fashion. From memory the book is much the same, and in that respect this is a faithful adaptation, though I feel in keeping the film as true to the novel as they did within the rather rushed two hours of screen time they were given, a bit too much is expected of any audience member who hasn’t read the book, nor understands the world.

As a fan, I was immediately drawn into it – this was the most nostalgic celluloid experience for me since Toy Story 3 – and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was most certainly over too soon. And though it’s hard for me to disconnect the two,  in trying to do so you definitely see a flawed film. One that makes to hard to connect with its characters and root for them – especially Ender – in the way you do in the source material. But irrespective of all this, the film will be an enjoyable experience any Sci-fi fan, and a nostalgic – if, unfortunately, not mind blowing – trip down memory lane for fans of the book.

Regardless of the film’s success – or lack thereof, as US box office takings seem to indicate – it’s untelling whether the series will push on in Cinematic form. As I write this they’re discussing a possible TV spin off, which would perhaps make more sense given there’s another twelve books in the series. But for now, I dare say most fans will not be disappointed by the film. It realises some of the most fantastical elements of the book in the most spectacular of ways, playing out our imaginations much as Ender’s mind games do his.

At times, however, this plays out much like a big screen version of Starcraft in a Terran versus Zerg faceoff, which may alienate those unfamiliar with the book and certainly those who don’t categorise themselves as “Sci-Fi Fans”. Perhaps there is a missed opportunity in that, perhaps it’s everything it needed to be – but either way, it’s a joy to see Ender finally on the big screen, and I for one hope it’s not the last time this world is brought to life.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Ender’s Game releases nationally in cinemas and in IMAX tomorrow.