Gavin Hood’s screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game depicts the exploits of Ender (Asa Butterfield, of Hugo and The Boy in Striped Pajamas) in his quest to end a war with the Formics, an ant-like species that invaded Earth 50 years prior to the events of the film. Taken into an elite program designed to train young children in the arts of war by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender develops his tactical skill. The majority of the film focuses on Ender’s training in this program, which includes inter-student battles in a zero gravity sphere and boot camp activities. Ender’s multiple successes lead to his rapid promotion through the military ranks, until it comes time for him to command the entire attack force.
However, Ender’s development of tact and skill over the course of the film is in explicit contrast to director Gavin Hood, who shows little awareness in his directing. Unwilling to choose between creating an action thriller or an emotional powerhouse, Hood opts for neither, and the result feels flat and lifeless. Ender’s portrayal in even his most emotionally extreme states is lackluster and apathetic. Hood passes on endless opportunities to provide Ender with more than a shallow emotional link to Petra (Hailee Steinfield of True Grit), one of his training partners. Ender’s only emotional grounding is through his sister, Valentine Wiggin (Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine and Zombieland). Valentine’s absence from the film parallels Ender’s isolation and the viewer’s diminished sympathy for the title character.
Ender’s lack of emotional development is mirrored in the characterization of the other main figures in the film. Despite having clearly defined personalities, no character ever really engages in self-reflection or any sort of introspection. Colonel Graff never stops to consider the implications of his war-training program and Petra makes seemingly difficult choices without any indecision. The absence of the necessary dynamic and self-actualizing characters constitutes a substantial portion of Hood’s failures.
Hood attempts to compensate for the lack of emotional substance with action and suspense. Unfortunately, as a result of his infallibility, Ender’s character development suffers and all suspense is lost. The viewer never doubts that Ender will succeed. This non-existent suspense was replaced with an over-abundance of plot twists, which are predictable, completely outlandish, or unnecessary. For example, the conclusion, admittedly derived from the novel, is incredibly contrived, and undermines the best moments of the film, during which Ender takes the form of a mouse in a visually stunning game.
This derivation is not only evident in the final scenes. Instead, in his screenplay, Hood refuses to interpret Card’s character and imbue Ender with his own ideas. This constant lack of ingenuity is further present in Hood’s homages, which are much closer to reproductions, to science-fiction films of the past. His upward-slanting ship design is identical to that in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the exploding nebulae scene is exceedingly similar to the burst of color in Kubrick’s classic. In this manner we find Hood in the same dilemma as his title character: He needs to take more risks. He needs to go out on a limb and inject his own artistic vision into the film.
Perhaps the most telling sequence occurs when Ender launches into space for the first time and recognizes that, though Colonel Graff appears horizontal to the new trainees, to Colonel Graff the trainees appear horizontal. This realization immediately sets Ender apart from his peers in terms of brilliance and intelligence. Like Ender, Hood’s film thinks that it is clever and witty. Instead, Hood’s film falls more in line with Colonel Graff; stubborn and lacking orientation. Hood’s unwillingness to interpret his source material and his numerous failures in creating relatable characters and compelling storylines makes Ender’s Game an empty shell of the novel that inspired it.
Ender's Game, directed by Gavin Hood, is playing at AMC River East.