Ender's Game: Film Review

The adaptation is a shallow sci-fi spectacle that almost makes you care.

Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailie Steinfeld, Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley star in Gavin Hood's adaptation of the classic 1985 sci-fi novel.

Andrew "Ender" Wiggin lives a horrible life. The world hates the saucer-eyed 10-year-old for who and what he is. The kids in his school hate him because he's brilliant, a strategic savant with the rare gift of being able to analyze any situation and see the way to achieve the most positive outcome, even if that means putting a bully in the hospital. "I wanted to win that fight, and all the fights after that," he explains coolly. His older brother hates him because, well, his older brother is a sociopath who gets his pubescent jollies by causing pain. His parents hate him because they had to get special dispensation to have a third child -- in this unspecified future, population control is in full effect -- and he doesn't seem to be living up to his potential, which, as almost every adult around Ender tells him, is to be nothing less that the savior of all mankind.

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Ender's Game, like Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel upon which it's based, is a story about a boy forced to become a weapon and the old man operating the forge. If only adapter-director Gavin Hood's movie had been tempered with craft and care and wasn't such a blunt instrument, one that seems designed as a delivery system for CGI derring-do instead of the heartbreaker it should be. Audiences who show up, undeterred by the stink around Card's public stance against homosexuality and gay marriage, will find that this attempt by Summit to kick-start another sci-fi franchise carries none of that odor, but still falls somewhat short of inspired.

Ender (Hugo's Asa Butterfield, seemingly always red around the eyes) was born some years after mankind's first contact with an alien species, called the Formics, which went about as well as most cinematic first contacts go: with an all-out attack on Earth by a swarming, advanced fleet that almost resulted in humanity's extermination. That invasion was halted due to the brilliance of one man, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who discovered the Formics' weakness and exploited it to a devastating result. Since then, the brass who runs Earth's International Fleet has been fearing reprisal from those aliens and preparing for it by scouring the planet for the most brilliant children around.

Children, it is explained by Harrison Ford's Col. Hyrum Graff in one of his many speeches, can make leaps of logic, of intuition, that adults can’t follow. So the Fleet has built a Battle School in Earth's orbit, a rotating, fluorescent cross between boarding school, boot camp and prison for those children so that the childhood can be hammered out of them. Ender has the same brilliance that made his sadistic brother Peter (Jimmy Jax Pinchak), and empathetic sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) candidates for Battle School, but while their tendencies washed them out of the program, his ability to blend both violence and compassion made him Graff's favorite.

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And so Ender is admitted into Battle School, in which the dozens of kids are sorted into "armies" and pitted against each other in a constant competition. This is but one of many ways Ender's Game shares more than a few similarities with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories. (And given that Card published his book decades before Rowling, the inspiration can go only one way.) They both center around children who have spent years being brutalized, enduring mental and physical abuse at the hands of grown-ups and kids alike -- and because we see their pain and feel their anguish, we understand why they lash out with violence and forgive them when they do. Here, Ender's story is like a sci-fi passion play; we know him only by the depth of his suffering.

Ender's Game is a film about empathy and the power that resides in empathy. The reason Ender succeeds is because he understands what makes his opponents tick on the battlefield, in the locker rooms and in the classrooms. Oddly, the film doesn't seem to have much empathy for its hero. The first 40 minutes are a parade of exposition where instead it should be inviting us inside Ender's world so that we care about the horrors that are visited upon him in ways that aren’t about the horrors themselves. As Ender evolves through Battle School from a raw "Launchie" to the commander of his own army, showing off his tactical prowess in a number of zero-gravity skirmishes in the spherical Battle Room, Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) skips across the surface of his emotional journey, counting on Graff's discussions with International Fleet shrink Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to fill in the blanks.

The final act of Ender's Game is where the meaning of the title becomes evident: Ender is promoted to Command School, where he's directed to plan and carry out a series of virtual attacks on the Formic fleet,  training simulations aided by the friends he made in Battle School -- including Hailee Steinfeld's Petra --  instructed by the legendary Rackham himself. Only here does the film achieve some emotional resonance, as we finally get a real sense of the impossible pressures put upon Ender by the coterie of adults who’ve placed the fate of a civilization in his hands; by his brothers in arms, who’ve hitched their wagons to his; and by himself, to live up to his own destiny.

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I wouldn’t dream of giving away the climax to Ender's Game other than to say it is almost worth enduring the shallowness that precedes it to get there. I will say, however, that the 15 minutes that follow are about as pointless as the last stretch in Psycho -- you know, the bit where it's suddenly a chatty courtroom drama. You'll spot the moment where Ender's Game clearly should've ended and gaze fondly in the rear-view mirror as it passes by.

Butterfield does his best to bring you inside Ender Wiggin, using his wide, blue eyes to try and convey a depth that Hood's script just doesn't support. And Ford constructs a man who’s bearing vacillates between being legitimately haunted by the trauma he's got to inflict upon a wee lad and being mildly irked, as if he doesn't want to read the cue cards on SNL. Steinfeld has so little to do as Ender's confidante she just kind of fades into the scenery instead of registering as the surrogate sister and nascent love interest she's designed to be.

The special effects are fine, but Ender's Game has the bad luck to be coming on the heels of Gravity. In the book, the scenes of combat in the Battle Room -- featuring as many as 30 kids streaking through zero-gravity, executing formations and maneuvers on the fly -- seemed to be unfilmable. While Hood and his CG wizards do a more than decent job, anyone who’s seen Alfonso Cuaron's wizardry will have seen it done far, far better.

Production: Summit Entertainment, OddLot Entertainment, Chartoff Productions, Taleswapper, K/O Paper Products, Digital Domain

Cast: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailie Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley

Director: Gavin Hood

Screenwriter: Gavid Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card

Producers: Gigi Pritzker, Linda McDonough, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Robert Chartoff, Lynn Hendee, Orson Scott Card, Ed Ulbrich

Executive producers: Bill Lischak, David Coatsworth, Ivy Zhong, Venkatesh Roddam, Ted Ravinett, Deborah Del Prete, Mandy Safavi

Director of photography: Donald M. McAlpine

Production designers: Sean Haworth, Ben Procter

Costume designer: Christine Bieselin Clark

Editor: Zach Staenberg, Lee Smith

Music: Steve Jablonsky

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes