Ender’s Game (12A)

Director: Gavin Hood

Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Jimmy Pinchak, Moises Arias, Aramis Knight, Conor Carroll, Nonso Anozie, Sir Ben Kingsley

Running time: 114 minutes

Released: October 25 (UK & Ireland)

THIS year sees two future-set books for young adults reach cinema screens.

One is Catching Fire, the second in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling Hunger Games trilogy, which hits multiplexes in November, and is the sequel to the triumphant first filmic instalment starring Jennifer Lawrence.

But racing ahead of it out of the blocks is this treatment of a much less famous property, Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, also one of a series. It has been in and out of the development process for decades, partly because a lot of its action takes place inside the head of its protagonist, young Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin.

Studios have struggled to find a way to wholly represent its futuristic tale of aliens and a militaristic space academy on screen, but now technology has finally caught up with Card’s vision.    

The financers of this film have struggled more recently with Card’s homophobic views, which have seen some distancing between him and the project of late, and have created unwelcome attention for the cast and filmmakers. 

Luckily for Card and co, the man behind the film which is released in cinemas this week is Gavin Hood, the passionate and eloquent South African director. Hood made his name with the Oscar-winning Tsotsi but has struggled in the Hollywood system, releasing just 2007’s Rendition and 2009’s underwhelming X-Men Origins: Wolverine so far.

The young man he has cast as Ender is Londoner Asa Butterfield, who has played previous leading roles in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Butterfield’s Ender, a gifted youngest sibling, attempts to reach the final stages of the programme of the military academy which prepares super-smart kids to defend the planet – largely through videogames and simulations - against an invasion by an alien race (the Buggers, later the Formics, in Card’s work).

He repeatedly encounters adversity in the form of a succession of rival males vying to be top dog, something his ‘tutor’ Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) asserts is essential in testing his mettle.

“He must never believe anyone will help him,” he orders Major Anderson (Viola Davis), and is encouraged when Ender seems to respond to such an education.

While a percentage of Ender’s Game is brave and bold, especially its open conclusion, taken as a whole it is, ironically for a space-set film, lacking in atmosphere.

Its shouty sergeant is particularly unconvincing and it’s a shame that the phenomenally talented young actress Hailee Steinfeld isn’t given much to do. Former child star Abigail Breslin is also wasted as Ender’s sister, and you can’t help but wish its talented cast were fully utilised and given better lines to utter.

Sir Ben Kingsley only pops up over an hour in, used to similarly underwhelming effect despite his striking facial Maori markings.

Unfortunately, despite its best intentions and the impressive technology, the lack of impact and import might mean that it is game over for Ender and the possible sequels to his adventures.