It’s been fifty years since aliens attacked Earth, killing thousands before a lucky strike brought the invading mothership crashing to the ground. The time since has been spent building up a military capable of fighting back in case the intruders ever choose to return. It’s not soldiers they’re after, though. The military brass are searching for a leader, a strategist capable of beating the alien swarms faster and harder than the space bugs can beat mankind.
Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks he’s found that great mind in Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield), a young boy whose two elder siblings have both failed out of the academy — a brother for being too aggressive and a sister for being too empathetic. Graff suspects Ender might be the “just right” in the Goldilocks analogy he probably makes offscreen. Young Ender is whisked up to an orbiting battle school to commence with the training that just might save humanity, but his biggest battle will be within himself. Dun dun dun!
Ender’s Game, based on the bestselling novel by Orson Scott Card, is a sci-fi action film that manages to best most YA adaptations at their own game. Card’s book was published before the YA designation came into fashion, but it has all the hallmarks including a teenage protagonist with social issues who just so happens to be the super special chosen one destined to save the world. A strong lead performance and some exciting action sequences follow, but they’re brought down by narrative lapses, disjointed drama, and an ending that lacks oomph.
Ender’s time at battle school sees him thrust into unwelcoming groups after being labeled by Graff as the best and the brightest. He’s forced to make friends, handle enemies, and command respect, all while finding the balance between aggression and empathy within. His personal triumphs and failures are woven together with his time spent training for battle and impressing others with his outside-of-the-box tactics.
Unfortunately, while we’re told (and led to imply from the giddy expressions of other characters) that Ender is a strategic genius, there is little to no evidence of it on display. He repeatedly falls back on a turtle-like maneuver that seems fairly basic to my eyes, and I couldn’t even point you in the direction of West Point. Ender’s interpersonal skills fare far better and feel more impressive in his dealings with adults, bullies (including the somewhat miscast Moises Arias) and new friends Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and Bean (Aramis Knight).
But what to make of his relationship with his siblings? His brother’s violent nature and his sister’s (Abigail Breslin) angelic one are glossed over even as their importance is inferred, and their extremely limited presence ensures that none of it will mean much to viewers.
Other logic and/or narrative holes exist, too. The briefest of explanations is offered as to why young kids are being groomed for the role of strategic commander, but it’s a hollow effort. Apparently children learn faster and better? Fine, but we’re shown nothing that couldn’t have been taught to a chimpanzee. Petra’s big accomplishment is that she can hit a button to fire a special cannon and then hit a second one to charge the cannon up again. Seriously, that’s it. By the time Ben Kingsley appears as a proven war vet who’s now seemingly incapable of hitting buttons or playing turtle you’ll just be accepting the film’s logic as gospel and happy to move on to worrying about something else.
Like what you ask? Like the apparent importance of Ender’s dreams, of which he only has one, and it’s in CGI. Or maybe you’ll be more interested in his inner conflict regarding the use of violence to solve problems. It’s a legitimate quandary, and one that the film ultimately isn’t very interested in pursuing.
Story gaps aside, the film works better during the handful of pure action sequences, and it’s here where director Gavin Hood takes the lead over screenwriter Gavin Hood. Later battle scenes are exciting, but they’re actually equaled by earlier ones featuring the teens essentially playing laser tag in a zero gravity environment. The scenes have an energy about them as teams go head to head, and while Hood neglects to take advantage of his own script’s point that there is no down or up in space. the sequences are fun and thrilling all the same.
The cast works where it needs to but grows less memorable as you work your way down the ladder. Butterfield shows great range with a character who needs to shift between emotions as if he were changing gears on a race track, and he sells the strain and depth as well as the child-like sense of wonder that occasionally creeps past his “wise beyond his years” front. Ford meanwhile gives his first performance with a pulse in years, reminding us that he’s more than just a sour puss. Steinfeld doesn’t have much to do, but she finds a charismatic joy absent in too many of the others including Kingsley, Viola Davis, and a barely there Breslin.
Ender’s Game is bound to alienate some of the novel’s readership, but it’s the book’s fans who will find the most to enjoy here because they can fill in the gaps the rest of us can only guess at. Fun action sequences, and a strong performance from Butterfield (and Ford proving he’s awake) go a long way toward making the film worth a watch. Just don’t expect this particular game to end with much more than a simulated whimper.
The Upside: Strong lead performances; Harrison Ford is alive!; impressive visuals; may lead to engaging discussions
The Downside: Third act lacks impact; key story details are given short shrift; strategy is spoken of but not shown
On the Side: Jake Lloyd was once pursued for the title role. We’re not sure if Ender grows up to be Darth Vader or not. Don’t spoil it.