I’m a sucker for good space opera. I’ve seen every episode of every Star Trek series, I know way too much about Babylon 5, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing the Mass Effect games. You can make basically any sci-fi features that has spaceship dogfights, intergalactic politics, or lofty discussions about interstellar ethics and I’ll be there. I’m the kind of guy who thinks that, if anything, the Star Wars prequels would have benefited from having more talks of trade blockades and senatorial debates, not less. So you’d think that the announcement that the long-gestating adaptation to one of the most famous space opera novels of all time finally coming to theaters would have me really excited, but really it mostly filled me with dread. This wasn’t because of the continuing controversy surrounding author Orson Scott Card and his various hateful rantings (about which I’ll just say, anyone who isn’t able to separate art from artist probably has no business claiming to be a film critic), rather, it was because the film was being directed by Gavin Hood. Hood is a rather pedestrian South African filmmaker whose work has gone from being merely overrated (Tsotsi), to being poor (Rendition), to being disastrous (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Basically his output has gotten worse as his budgets have gotten bigger and he seemed like the perfect person to botch this thing from the get go. Still, I am a sucker for space opera, so three weeks into the film’s run I broke down and decided to give a go after all.
Set late in the 21st century, the film follows a pre-teen named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) who, at a young age, was discovered as a child prodigy in the realm of strategic thinking. Such young men are considered extremely valuable in this world because Earth is only a few years removed from an invasion by an alien species called the Formics that Earth was only barely able to fend off and there’s a great deal of fear that a second invasion is coming. Seeking to mold Ender into the next Caesar or Napoleon, an International Fleet colonel named Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) enlists Ender as a cadet at a battle school for young people. At this school Ender is tested for his abilities in leadership, composure, and psychological fortitude and passes most of his tests with flying colors, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll truly be ready when the real battle comes.
It’s not too much of a mystery why the “Ender’s Game” novel was finally adapted now after sitting in limbo for almost thirty years: young adult fiction is a hot commodity right now in Hollywood. The irony of course is that Ender’s Game wasn’t really marketed as “YA fiction” when it was published in 1985, I’m pretty sure it was just sold as straight up science fiction. It’s only in retrospect that it seems to conform to that genre, or rather, what that genre eventually became. The battle school that’s teaching Ender how to become a space hero bears a strong resemblance to the Hogwarts Academy from the Harry Potter series and the film’s placement of children into a dangerous and violent conflict is not entirely dissimilar from what the Hunger Games series is trying to do. The only thing missing is an overwrought supernatural romance. Of course there’s a good chance that it isn’t a coincidence that so many genre stories about young people that were written in the last twenty years have resembled Ender’s Game, it’s entirely possible that authors like J.L. Rowling and Suzanne Collins were directly inspired by Orson Scott Card’s original novel. This is of course a double edged sword, on one hand the boom of YA adaptations has helped this movie finally get made in the first place but it also means the film could easily fall into the same trap that John Carter fell into: seeming to be a rip off of a number of other recent film that had themselves borrowed from the original source material that the film is based on.
Fortunately Ender’s Game is a much more popular and accessible work than the John Carter books. It’s a very breezy and readable work but one with a lot of interesting ideas and a central story that really keeps you interested. I read it at the tender young age of… twenty, and remember thoroughly enjoying it. I’m not exactly sure whether my having read the source material made me enjoy this film adaptation more or less than I would if it was something I was unfamiliar with. On one hand, I think I picked up on certain details in the story which aren’t really explained in the film (like what the significance of being a “third” is in the film’s world, or why Ender’s brother and sister are in the film) and it also gave me a certain appreciation for the film’s ability to get most of the novel’s story into a compact two hour film. On the other hand, it also increased my disappointment at the film’s overall mediocrity. This is a tough film to really review because it has no glaring problems to speak of but is also devoid of any kind of real spark that would turn it into something truly memorable.
The film’s first challenge is that it in many ways rests on the shoulders of various child actors. The film addresses this by assembling a sort of who’s who of young actors from the last couple years including Asa Butterfield (of Hugo fame), Hailee Steinfeld (of True Grit fame), and Abigail Breslin (of Little Miss Sunshine fame). The results are mixed. Most of the staring children are fine, but some of the kids in smaller parts come off a bit false in certain scenes, especially the ones who have to play stereotypical bullies in certain scenes. Asa Butterfield himself is also a bit inconsistent. He’s playing a character who’s supposed to be an exceptional talent and who’s operating under extreme pressure, there’s supposed to be something rather “off” about the character and that comes across in his performance. It’s probably deliberate but there’s something kind of off-putting about the performance all the same. This also makes him come off particularly false whenever he’s supposed to show any real emotion or anger.
It’s also worth noting that while this is being sold as an action blockbuster, that’s not really what it is. There are certainly spaceships and CGI as well as a variety of set pieces in the zero gravity training environment at the battle school, and late in the film we do technically see a space battle, but this is more like a plot point than a genuine action scene. This is appropriate to the source material but none of it is overly audience pleasing and I suspect that anyone going to the film expecting it to be the next Star Wars will leave disappointed. The special effects are… serviceable. They don’t look fake or anything, but they aren’t going to wow anyone and its frankly pretty clear that this was being made by Hollywood’s B-team. That’s true about all aspects of this movie really. One of the things I like to do when I get home from any movie is look through the categories of my annual Golden Stake awards and quickly assess which categories the film I just watched might have a shot at. For this movie I could hardly think of a single one. Not cinematography, not set design, not makeup, none of the actions scenes, none of the performances. Nothing. And mind you, none of these elements were noticeably bad either, they just didn’t excel at all.
Gavin Hood sort of acquits himself insomuch as he’s managed to make a mainstream film that isn’t a complete mess and as a screenwriter he should definitely get credit for making a pretty efficient adaptation that doesn’t abandon the original novel’s themes of the effects and consequences of war and of the failing to question authority. Still, there were better people for this job and I can’t help but think of how good this could have been if even half of the talent and resources that were wasted earlier this year on gargantuan nothings like Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim had been funneled into this film (or, conversely, that some of this film’s interest in telling an interesting science fiction story had been funneled into either of those projects). Despite all that, I do think there is enough here to recommend Ender’s Game, but pretty much everything about the film that does work comes straight from the source material and given that the book is not exactly a hard read it might be just as easy to go to your library for this one instead of your local multiplex.
*** out of Four