Adapting intensely popular novels is a balancing act. Pleasing all of the fans all of the time is a fool’s errand. Filmmakers have to satiate fans with their knowledge and clever use of the source material, but they also have to keep in mind that there’s a whole generation out there that hasn’t read the book. Since the last time I read Ender’s Game was in junior high, I feel like I fall into the latter group for the most part. I remember next to nothing in regard to Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi opus about a young genius called upon to save the world from an invading alien race. Being that far removed from the novel allowed me to relax and not worry about them covering everything that’s explained in the book.
Ender (Asa Butterfield) finds himself living in a world where alien invasion is a very real thing. Earth has already been invaded. The battle looked bleak. It appeared as if humans were going to lose. Then a hero emerged; Mazer Rackham found a way to destroy the invading force of über-intelligent, space-traveling insects called Formics.
In fear of the bugs returning to finish what they started, the human race commissioned a battle school to train kids in the art of war. Ender is a military genius. Working behind the scenes to make sure he lives up to his destructive potential is Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Graff watches Ender from a distance and controls his surroundings and interactions, making sure that Ender is completely ready for what’s to come.
Ender quickly travels to battle school to be trained in the art of combat, military strategy and defeating his opponents. Fans of the book will be happy to know that the visualization of the orbiting battle school base is extremely well done. And it isn’t a gratuitous frenzy of computer animation. It’s restrained enough to be a believable structure. The battle games that the students participate in aren’t as hectic or confusing as the Quidditch matches in Harry Potter. Instead director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and his team of visual effects artists keep the focus on the strategy used within the games. It’s a perfect example of using state-of-the-art visual effects to actually tell the story instead of simply using them because they look cool on the big screen.
Ender’s Game isn’t all about the battle scenes, even though that’s where the movie really excels in providing applaud-worthy suspense. It’s also about the relationships Ender creates along the way. While some of them are fleshed out enough to be emotionally meaningful, like Ender and Graff or Ender and Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), there are others that feel thin and underdeveloped, like Ender’s supposedly strong relationship with his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). The movie falters a bit during the scenes between Ender and Valentine, because there’s not enough there to convince those who haven’t read the book of their uniquely emotional bond. Dramatic scenes between the two fall flat. They feel like there’s something missing in the narrative, almost like we’ll see a few relationship-building scenes establishing a more sound association included as deleted scenes on the home video release.
The positive aspects of this adaption outweigh the negative, though. The fact that the movie waits a good long while to fully realize Ender’s potential is admirable. It could’ve been easy to dive headfirst into a CGI-centric sci-fi movie while leaving all character building at the door. Thankfully, Hood’s screenplay understands, to an extent, that we as an audience need to care about the characters before they jump into whatever life-threatening battle awaits them. Like Ender himself, the movie is calculated in its storytelling, paying off in the end. When all is revealed, the ending carries much more weight because we care about what came before.