When it comes to adapting beloved novels, Hollywood has a lot of blood on its hands. We all have our own personal laundry lists of books we spent our childhoods poring over that wound up getting sapped of their original spark and power on the way to the big screen. I could be wrong, but I suspect that diehard fans of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi allegory Ender’s Game might walk out of Gavin Hood’s lavish, eye-candy adaptation with a similar sensation — that they’ve spent more than two decades waiting for what ends up being an oddly lifeless and emotionally unaffecting film.
For the uninitiated, Ender’s Game is the story of 12-year-old Ender Wiggin (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield), a shy loner with a beautiful mind. His gift, if it can be called that, considering what happens in the last third of the film, is that he’s a bit of savant when it comes to strategy and analyzing thorny no-win situations. He’d give Captain Kirk a serious run at Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru scenario. This is a particularly valuable skill set in the wake of a devastating attack on Earth years earlier by an alien insect race called the Formics. There are reports that these intergalactic praying mantises are about to launch a second assault and the military powers that be are scouring our planet, looking for the best and the brightest to outwit these blood-thirsty beasties.
Harrison Ford, all gravel and growl, plays Col. Hyrum Graff, the head of recruiting. He sees in Ender the last best hope for Earth’s survival: And a child shall lead them?and all of that. He taps Ender for a spot in the elite Battle School, where he faces down bullies using his unique brand of psychological jujitsu. The problem is, these initiation and training scenes go on forever. He forms a sort of chaste romance with a fellow cadet (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), becomes an ace at an anti-gravity laser-tag variation of Quidditch, and earns the grudging respect of his classmates. While the movie looks stunning, it’s also all a bit dull. I kept thinking what Ender’s Game could have used was some of the fizz and subversive bite of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.
Card’s public stance against gay marriage has been controversial, but none of those views have made it into the film. The movie actually contains an anti-bullying theme of tolerance. Mostly, it’s a harmless, slightly clunky story in which the undercooked plot and unremarkable performances fail to match the visual ambition. The revelations in the film’s downbeat but satisfying final act hint at deeper wrinkles that were ironed out of the novel on its journey to the multiplex. But by the time the movie finally manages to get interesting, audiences may be too numb and their retinas too fried to win back. C+