Franchises of successful books with plentiful sequel options are hot properties in Hollywood nowadays. Thus it’s unsurprising that Orson Scott Card’s Ender series has been picked up, and kicked off with Ender’s Game. Asa Butterfield stars as a diminutive and manipulative young boy, drafted into a training program for prodigal strategists to fight off a threat to mankind in the future. The film is no unmitigated disaster, but miscasting and misdirection foil the novel’s profound plot and reduce it to forgettable fodder.
Ender’s progress through various stages of Battle School, a training ground based in strategic lessons, glossed over hugely, and a futuristic laser tag arena in zero gravity, heavily featured, is rapid, but the film fails to provide a real sense of time passing. Leaderboards show changing fortunes, but the film only really feels like it’s a week or so of time – instead of the years in the novel, and the months the movie claim have passed. The later space battle scenes are pleasingly rendered but logically puzzling, with any sort of serious thought about the strategies utilised calling their brilliance into serious question.
It is rare that casting gets so in the way of my enjoyment of a feature, but it is a simple fact that Asa Butterfield would have been perfect for the role of Ender Wiggin, alienated genius, a few years ago, not today. Since his breakthrough as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Butterfield’s body has stretched out, and the tall, lanky look simply throws the balance of too many scenes. When he is looking down at adults and older teenagers alike, the feeling of intellectual superiority is lost in the physical confrontation – never more apparent than when facing up to his antagonist, Moises Arias’ Bonzo. Butterfield has the innocent face for the role, and his acting doesn’t really let him down, but the physical barrier is too great. Harrison Ford, is not nearly so miscast, and easily manages his role as Colonel Graff, Ender’s gravelly sometime mentor and motivator. The assortment of younger cast members are unimpressive, but not direly so; Hailee Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee, it is worth remembering, needs to steer clear of dross like this to keep her career on the up and up.
The film is frustrating for its nearly moments; various conversations and actions prompt incredulous laughter from the audience when gasps were clearly intended, and the anti-war movement towards its conclusion is somehow lost by the melodrama of its presentation. Adequate explanation of parts of the film’s established future are simply missing too often – from the true level of Ender’s intellect to what a ‘third’ is. It is bold in some places in meeting the challenges of the novel’s uncompromising treatment of its young characters, but in others is overly cheesy and coddling. This is a film which feels like the cynicism of a studio seeking a teen franchise to cash in on, colliding with a creative team who are well aware of the far more serious underlying messages of the source material. Thus, it is not a total failure, but feels like a painful missed opportunity.