Film adaptations of books are a tricky business. The needs of a good movie are often in conflict with the needs of a good book. Books can be expansive down a long, winding road of digressions and disparate events. Movies often need a simpler, more straightforward narrative. The biggest question is how much to diverge from the source material to make a successful movie. The first Harry Potter movies made very few changes. The Lord of the Rings films made several drastic ones. And yet both were successful film.
I get the feeling that Ender's Game, based on the hit novel by Orson Scott Card, could have worked better if they had diverted more from the book.
The story is this: Set several years after a devastating alien attack, Earth has become a united military coalition with the sole purpose of fighting the enemy. Children are used specifically because of their ability to process information rapidly. Ender (Asa Butterfield) is a young strategic genius. He can think strategically in all manner of situations (games, bully defense, social hierarchy), and thus comes to the attention of Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) who picks him for special training on a military school in space. There, he must learn to overcome obstacles (sometimes literally) and become a leader.
This is where the film began to fall apart for me and why I think it would have been better to diverge from the book. I have never read the book, so my assessment may be off. But during his time at this academy, it felt as if the story was there to get you to certain moments and plot points in the book. Nothing about how the story unfolded felt organic. "Here's the scene where ender stands up to the bully. Now here's the scene where Ender makes friends. Now here's the scene where Ender proves how smart he is. Now here's the scene where Ender feels badly about something he's done." This section of the film may have worked better if any of Ender's relationships were fleshed out, other than his connection to Petra (Haliee Steinfeld) who creates the only believable relationship to Ender other than his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin).
It also doesn't help that I couldn't take his main antagonist in this section seriously. Ender gets transferred at one point to another unit (the strangely titled Salamanders). The student leader there is the most unimpressive bully I have ever seen onscreen (and that includes Boots McAfee). First of all, his name is Bonzo. Second, he looks perpetually constipated. Third, he is at least 6 inches shorter than Ender. So when the character tries to act menacing, all I can do imagine myself slapping him.
The other big disappointment is Harrison Ford. The only adjective I can come up with for his performance is "tired." I don't know what happened to his energy and intensity, but it isn't in Ender's Game. He had it for Cowboys and Aliens, but not here. Age is no excuse. When Ben Kinglsy comes onto the screen in the last act as an enigmatic officer, he has the pep, energy, and charisma of someone half his age. Even Butterfield has a better performance than Ford, though that too suffers from his young age and inexperience.
The movie is not without merit. Much of the second act is built around competitions that take place in a zero gravity arena. And these sequences are quite awesome to behold. Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), makes the most of these scenes. They are fun and exciting and draw you completely into the movie for a time. It is here that the story works best as we see Ender's strategic mind and leadership at work. You tell a lot of work went into these set pieces and it pays off fantastically.
The movie also has an interesting twist that I will not spoil here. It highlights all of the ethical questions raised regarding war, defense, and military aggression. If it had ended on this note, that would have been fine. But then there is another twist that comes even closer to the end that I found, quite frankly, kind of stupid.
Ender's Game is not a bad movie. There are fun moments and some Twilight Zone-esque gut punches. But the clunkiness of the story kept jarring me out of the movie and kept me from truly getting caught up in the game.
2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.