Release Date: November 1, 2013
Director: Gavin Hood
Writers: Gavin Hood (screenplay), Orson Scott Card (based on the book Ender’s Game by)
Stars: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Ender’s Game is actually a pretty solid barometer of where we are right now with big budget mainstream cinema. It’s a slickly-produced and impressively-scaled sci-fi epic based on a pre-exisiting property that is full of recognizable actors. But for all of the careful calculations that went into making it seem epic and worthwhile, there’s something about its overly-sanitized and polished story that ultimately leaves you feeling cold.
The film, based on a novel by Orson Scott Card (who has been doing this film no favors thanks to a few recent intolerant blow ups), tells the story of a futuristic Earth where humans do battle with alien bug creatures known as the Formics. Seventy years after the Formics attack on Earth, the creatures have retreated to their home planet and Earth’s International Fleet are preparing for their return.
The IF believes that their best hope is using child soldiers who can maneuver their fighter ships like a video game. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is part of a military school that trains these potential tiny commanders. Much like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Ender had an older brother who flamed out of the school for being too angry and a sister who was sent home because she’s too compassionate, but the higher ups believe that Ender’s mentality is a perfect middle ground.
Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes that Ender is the child they’ve been looking for. So he subjects the kid to a number of mind games to test how he’ll react to various situations.
The film is mostly focused on Ender’s training as he gears up for a showdown with the Formics. Ender struggles to fit in with the other cadets and struggles with his anger and the immense responsibility placed on his shoulders. He’s also somewhat uncertain about the mission overall. The Formics have retreated to their planet and don’t seem to be a threat any more. Colonel Graff wants to take a proactive approach to preventing another attack instead of waiting for the Formics to attack Earth again.
Ford is solid as Colonel Graff, though his role is a pastiche of every growling, cigar-chomping movie general. Asa Butterfield handles the leading role adequately, though there’s a cold detachment to his performance that’s hard to gauge whether or not its intentional. Viola Davis is enjoyable as Major Gwen Anderson, the yin to Ford’s yang and Ben Kingsley gives a memorably strange performance as the face-tattooed, kiwi-accent Mazer Rackham.
The best scenes in the film are the war games that pit Ender and his squad versus other potential child commanders. The various squads compete in a zero gravity war room playing a high stakes simulation that is part laser tag, part capture the flag.
Once Ender advances to simulated battles against the Formics, it isn’t quite as exciting to watch. Visually, the simulations are quite impressive, but they just involve Ender and his crew remotely controlling the fleet, so it feels a bit like watching other people play an elaborate video game.
Also, those of you who haven’t read the book may be thrown off by the film’s ending. There is an unexpected twist at the end, one that calls into question everything you’ve seen before it. As a result of this twist, the film feels a bit anticlimactic. It’s an ending designed to make you think, but watching it on the big screen, especially after watching two hours of big budget CGI space conflicts, feels a bit flat.
Ultimately, Ender’s Game is a solid, though unremarkable film. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but that’s by design. All of the rough edges have been sanded down. And it suffers for its lack of ambition and lack of that certain “je ne sais quoi” that comes from taking chances and being a little quirky and unpredictable.
Go see it if you are into this sort of film, but you may have trouble shaking the feeling that it’s a film you’ve seen countless times before (albeit with a much different ending).
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.