I remember as a kid reading Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and imagining what the movie would be like. I can picture it clear as day, my ten old year nerdy self, burning through the book late night; fantasizing how cool it would be as a movie. Twenty-five years later I get that chance, and am pretty impressed. Director Gavin Hood delivers a solid adaptation of the beloved science fiction classic. It is a dark tale about the militarization of youth and the indefensible morality of genocide. This is fairly heady stuff for a big budget effects film led by a cast of teenagers. Summit and Lionsgate Pictures allowed Gavin Hood to make a tonally accurate picture, honestly reflecting the themes of the novel. I think the success of The Hunger Games unshackled the studio from pacifying the story. Younger audiences can be amazed by spectacle, but are smart enough to be engaged if you have the skill to do it right.
Ender's Game takes place fifty years after the Formics, an insect-like alien race, attacks Earth. Beaten by a hero's bravery, the Formics retreat but leave mega death behind. Humanity unites and creates the International Fleet, a military force to prevent another Formic attack. The IF decides that only children have the untapped imagination and capacity to creatively defeat such a dangerous enemy. They establish Battle School, at an orbiting space station, where only the most elite of cadets are invited to train. We are introduced to Andrew Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), a 'third' child. His ability has been closely watched by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), the man responsible for training recruits. Along with Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), they consistently push Ender to see how he reacts under different scenarios. Before long they realize he may be the best cadet they have ever seen. Invited to Battle School, Ender befriends Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), and quickly distinguishes himself as a tactical genius. Leading Graff to force Ender into darker places where his morality fears to tread.
Ender's Game succeeds because we believe Asa Butterfield. He is magnificent as Ender. The audience follows Ender along his dark journey. He is an emotionally complex character torn between his duty and his morality. Butterfield plays Ender as both innocent and deadly. He is ostensibly a boy being turned into a killer before our eyes. But Ender is much more than a killer. He is intelligent, with the capacity for love, and needs it to function. Butterfield holds his own with heavyweight hitters like Ford and Davis, but it's his interaction with the other children in the cast that is a winner. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin are very good here. Kudos to Gavin Scott for an exceptional cast of young actors, and a screenplay with excellent dialogue between them. We never lose sight of their youth, which is what makes this story so philosophically deep.
I think the pacing of Ender's Game is key to its entertainment value. There isn't a dull moment in this film. Hood and his editing team move slowly when focus is needed, but are smart enough to not get bogged down. The action scenes are breezy, almost like firecrackers that burn bright then die perfectly. But when the drama has to sink in, he lets the chemistry between the actors flow. I was not happy at all with Hood's Wolverine film. He completely redeems himself as a filmmaker with Ender's Game. This is good science fiction with a message skillfully told. Not to be missed in IMAX.