“Ender’s Game” (2013), directed by the South African Gavin Hood, is a military science fiction film based on Orson Scott Card’s cult novel of the same name from 1985. It’s a film that is more complex than it initially appears, the exposition-leaden opening thankfully not an indicator of what is to come, with Hood using cinematic techniques to tell the story rather than using any trite narrative clutches such as voice-over. Instead, the script (also written by Hood), introduces the figure of Ender, played by a marvellously cold Asa Butterfield, and his submergence into a future world of complex military strategy. The presence of many other child actors, even the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin fail to make much impact. Yet this isn’t a downside as much as it appears; Ender is supposed to be isolated and withdrawn, and it is appropriate for a film seen through his eyes that we scarcely get to known anything more than the broad strokes of personality from his compatriots in “Command School”.
The older members of the cast though, disappointingly, don’t register as much as they need to. Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff is rather one-note, only Ben Kinsley’s unconventional character Mazer Rackham being memorable. The script fairly abandons them all to the sidelines and favours Ender above all else; thankfully, Butterfield is more than capable to meet that challenge, delivering an excellent child performance for a none too likable character. He’s the film’s strongest point.
The direction is good, even exhilarating in the scenes of stimulated zero gravity battle. The $110 million budget has been well used, credibly creating orbiting space stations and ships. The future imagined isn’t so far from are our world, the suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience not so great. It follows the path of films as diverse as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “Minority Report” (2002) that realised the future is made more plausible by having ties to the present.
Unfortunately, the ingenious twist ending, which probably works better on the page than it does on the screen, has, by necessity, almost to mould the movie in reverse leaving a curious sense of distance and lack of tension to the climax, while the epilogue goes into a bizarre realm which feels out of tone with the rest of the film.
The film is still an enjoyable science fiction movie, professional and well-made, but it suffers from the feeling it may have even been better had it been braver in adapting the source novel and not felt so obliged to try and translate aspects of it that don’t work on the silver screen.