For decades people have claimed that Orson Scott Card's heralded science-fiction novel was brilliant but unfilmable. Set almost entirely in space and featuring massive battle scenes, the budget requirements alone would have understandably scared off studio execs. With major advancements in computer graphics, writer-director Gavin Hood was apparently confident he could make this book into the movie it deserved to be at long last. But could he condense an intense book about mind games and the innermost emotions of a young soldier into a captivating adventure? In a word: absolutely.
Ender's Game is set in a world brought together by alien attack. 50 years before the film begins, a bug-like race invaded, but was ultimately squashed by human forces. Still, Earth's casualties were world changing. To defend against presumed future attacks, The International Military was created, and a relentless training program was formed to groom children to become commanders, who will direct the movements of gigantic space warships. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a boy in this program whose skill for strategy sets him apart in the eyes of the ruthlessly pragmatic Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Believing Ender could be the one to put down the alien threat for good, Graff puts the boy through an especially brutal training regimen that will not only test his tactics but also his very sanity in hopes of making him the greatest commander the world has ever seen.
While preparing for this interplanetary battle, Ender must not only concern himself with the task before him but also confront his own crisis of identity. He fears that his inner rage could boil over and make him a volatile psycho like his quick-to-violence brother Peter (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak). He strives to keep in mind the compassion he admires in his strong-willed yet kind sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). But as competition for the commander position heats up, so do rivalries with other candidates like the small but furious Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias), who tests Ender's limits.
The special effects Hood has engineered are outstanding, from the battle arena where cadets float around in zero gravity to the sprawling battle scenes that involve too many space crafts to count. But even better is Hood's screenplay, which concisely sets up exposition and characters while keeping the running time to a suitable 114 minutes. Having never read the book, I was still able to follow the war plotline, though I had a definite sense the text would be richer if I'd had the book's telling in my mind to bolster it.
Of course, all of this might have meant nothing if it weren't for the supremely solid performance from young Butterfield. He has an incredibly difficult role in Ender, a boy who is self-assured in his skills but not cocky, who is kind but not weak. Butterfield is in nearly every scene of Ender's Game and whether he's staring down Graff, fighting with Bonzo or flirting with the bold and beautiful cadet Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), he is engaging and emotionally honest. This isn't the movie kid who is endlessly quipping and too cool to cry. In one particularly disturbing sequence, Butterfield's eyes brim with tears and he screams in frustration that makes his voice crack. It's details like this that ground all this heady sci-fi in an emotionally captivating reality.
It helps that Butterfield is supported by a cast of stellar performers. Ford is gruff but believable as the manipulative Col. Graff. Breslin and Pinchak manage a sharp balancing act as siblings and foils. Viola Davis, Nonso Anozie and Ben Kingsley give specific performances that efficiently define their military characters while giving a welcomed gravity to Ender's world. Even the many child actors filling in the numerous kid cadet roles manage to ground their characters, rather than flying off into cartoonish kid stereotypes.
All this--the spectacular special effects, the deft storytelling and the strong ensemble performances--blend together to create a pretty remarkable movie that I believe both kids and grownups can appreciate. It's not just a thrilling adventure about space and war. It's also a thoughtful story about growing up and figuring out not just who you are, but who you hope to become. And with a third act that refuses to pull its punches, it's easy to imagine that many will cling to this more mature take on a child savior tale just as millions have to the book on which its based.