For all of the considerable questions raised in “Ender’s Game,” director Gavin Hood‘s adaptation of Orson Scott Card‘s sci-fi novel, they ultimately all revolve around process. The film has numerous steps toward intergalactic war pitting Earth against an alien race and is most engaged when exploring the moral, strategic, and psychological knots at each juncture, only tied to the military teens trained to lead the effort. Those three aspects are troublesome, however: they’re hard to depict cinematically, quibbles which have made Card’s internally-focused work so meddlesome to adapt. But more importantly, if made the central force of the unfolding drama, they require articulation deeper than what Hood’s ambitious but unsatisfying fable provides.
Theme, not character, in fact drives the “Tsotsi” director’s slimmed-down narrative, which centers around 12-year-old Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a precocious boy talented in tactical play and possessing a simmering inner rage. Butterfield—last glimpsed, pale-faced and cherubic, in Martin Scorsese‘s “Hugo“—shifts here completely, portraying Ender with a slight petulance, off-key empathy, and short hair gelled upwards to its limits. Hood has little qualms in letting his protagonist come off as unlikable, and Butterfield settles into the role without judgment, emitting a glint of intelligence to draw you in nonetheless.
On Earth, Ender logically dresses down peers and authority figures, picking the most advantageous outcome from any scenario. And as it turns out, he needs the skill—Ender is constantly bullied at school and prone to lash out, each violent outburst drawing him closer to the fate of his psychopath older brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak). One person who sees promise in Ender’s condition though is Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who commands a space station battle school where children compete in war games, preparing for the day when they finally face the mounting Formic alien forces. Naturally, he does everything in his power to make sure Ender is the first one among the next batch of recruits, and he succeeds.
These war games—laser tag matches between “armies” across a vast spherical zero gravity chamber—are the iconic images of Card’s original novel; they comprise nearly its entire middle section, and chart Ender’s growing alliance with top pupil Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and fellow trainees Bean (Aramis Knight) and Bernard (Conor Carroll), and also rivalries with others, like the hotheaded Bonzo (“The Kings of Summer” star Moises Arias). Hood ports these action sequences over with an entertaining blend of mass wirework and constantly uprooted perspectives, and the diverse ensemble’s honing of their skills speeds the film along. But in compressing Ender’s journey aboard the battle school from six years into one, he’s erased certain details along the way, such as how the laser tag matches inform the piloting of spaceships later on and exactly how Ender’s dual-wielding Christ Pose of an Antonio Banderas impression circa “Desperado” singles him out for leadership qualities in one instant.
That ridiculous moment though does give an indication of the film’s skill in finding striking images. “Ender’s Game” marks Hood’s second collaboration with DP Don McAlpee after “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and while the two films’ budgets are nearly the same, it’s shocking to see how far the duo have improved from their prior muddy mess. The story confines the action largely to within the glossy battle school halls, classrooms, and bunkrooms (production designed by Sean Haworth and Ben Procter of “Tron: Legacy”). In doing so, Hood captures snatches of glittering deep space outside windows, and lets the ship’s primary color-hued interior reinforce a sense of claustrophobia overall as Steve Jablonsky‘s serviceable electronic score rings out.
The Formics are likewise withheld from view, sustaining the recruits’ suspense as they grow nearer to their fight. However, once the showdown between the two forces hits, it’s eye-popping and coherently-staged, always distinct in which character is involved in which skirmish and what the consequences of their individual actions mean to the overall narrative.
If only those consequences were matched emotionally by the characters. Unfortunately we never get a lasting sense of the other battle school pupils—a character’s greeting of “As-salam alaykum” is quite literally his one defining trait—while Butterfield’s limits quickly grow visible as Ender’s calm under pressure melts. Equally as painful is his character’s slightly incestuous relationship with his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), which is stodgily conceived from the subplot’s first scene and mostly consists of a stilted conversation in a drifting boat. Across the board, the film boasts a top-tier cast including Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley in a brief late-stage appearance as a tattooed Maori fighter pilot, but for the majority of the film’s runtime they are left to their own devices to find humanity beneath their airless plot-oriented designs. Ford is an exception—in his quickly fading role as military symbol, he develops a nuanced dynamic of abuse and awe with Ender that opens up a wider discussion on oppression and what it can produce.
“Ender’s Game” then builds to a thematic conclusion that is a rarity in younger-skewing films; once the end credits roll, it’s possible to regard the outcome in a number of different ways, which strikes to the heart of Card’s refusal to condescend in his arguably Young Adult novel. Hood keeps the final reel’s narrative beats intact, thankfully, but by his choice to place character almost solely in service of his larger goals, he undercuts the power of its closing ruminations on peace, betrayal and subjective warfare with a quick, wilted sign-off. A faithful adaptation of “Ender’s Game” probably shouldn’t end with a tidy explanation regardless, but as a mainstream sci-fi film, this enjoyable, occasionally poignant effort too often feels messy in the wrong ways. [C+]