In 1985, author Orson Scott Card published his acclaimed novel Ender’s Game, a science-fiction book following a young boy who goes through military training to prepare for war against an enemy alien race. Having little familiarity with the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect of this film adaptation.
Much of the press around the film has been controversial. This has less to do with the movie, and more to do with Card, and his views on gay marriage. Many have subsequently boycotted the film while the studio has made a point to create distance from Card’s beliefs. While his views are nothing short of ridiculous, that will not be the point of today’s review.
This film adaptation, which has been in development for years, felt custom tailored to make me despise virtually every second of its running time. While I wish I could offer some word of recommendation, I have nothing complimentary to say of this movie.
In the future, earth has changed drastically. Years after an invasion by alien enemies known as the formics, the world’s militaries have started programs training children for military combat and tactician. Ender (Asa Butterfield), a gifted cadet, is brought onto the program when Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees his potential in strategy.
This is where we get down to the first flaw of the film, Ender himself. Conceptually speaking, this character opens itself up to great analysis. Ender is a gifted strategist, no doubt, but one with a troubled history. He is the third of his siblings to be considered for this program. His sister (Abigail Breslin) was rejected for being too sensitive, and his brother was rejected for being too violent. Much of the events surrounding Ender offer a chance at achieving a solid investment with the character. For the overall themes that the film tries to explore, he can also lend to great commentary. The film ambitiously attempts to delve into the issues of fascism and the indoctrination of children into military, highlighted by “games” that tend to blur the lines between virtual reality, and the real world, as shown by RPG style mind games Ender plays that are supervised by Major Anderson (Viola Davis).
However, all of this is botched in execution. The script written by Gavin Hood, who also directs the film, feels hollow. The beginning of the film moves at light speed, hurling relentless exposition in a rush to get off of earth, and into the battle school in orbit, which also affects Ender’s progression in ranks, as it feels unrealistically portrayed by happening in only a few weeks. Unfortunately, by rushing all of this material by without giving things a chance to sink in, the previously mentioned themes of the film feel compromised and downplayed. What could have contributed to great commentary is instead wasted on a half baked slog with poor character development that is never allowed to reach its full potential. This renders the character of Ender to be wasted. Any emotional investment to be felt with the character is for naught, due to the fact that Hood’s script and actor Asa Butterfield’s performance ultimately make little more than a cold connection.
Once we’re in space, things don’t make much of an improvement. Ender makes friends and enemies with several other cadets, butting heads with ruthless commander Bonzo (whose scenes with Ender sometimes provide unintentional laughter), as well as becoming allies with the tough but sincere Petra (Hailee Steinfeld, the ONE actor who looks like she’s even trying in this movie). Many things happen during their time in the Battle School, with Ender eventually forming his own team of cadets, and challenging other teams in zero-gravity chambers to test their overall teamwork and strategy, all of which is done to prepare the teams for a possible alien invasion.
Perhaps Gavin Hood has a great understanding of the source material, and the themes present, but it never comes across. As messy as his script is, his direction is also to blame. His handling of the actors could have provided a solid strength to the film, but they’re so barely used in a compelling nature that they instead come across as bland. This is especially irritating because of the talented adult actors in the film. Harrison Ford’s gruff commander role is merely one of his more disposable performances. Viola Davis and her character are severely underused, and so is Ben Kingsley in his “wiseman” role, which is especially non-impactful seeing as how Kingsley’s character’s first appearance is meant to serve as a major twist late in the film, but is spoiled thanks to the film’s advertising. The child actors fare no better. Like I said, Hailee Steinfeld is the only actor to give any life to the film, but everyone else is weak.
Even technically, the film leaves a lot to be desired. The action scenes in the film are very dull, with the zero-gravity battles between the teams holding little to no excitement, and simulation scenes later in the film that can be outright confusing. Even the visual effects in these scenes, rendered by the artists at Digital Domain, are merely average. Much of this film is so inconsistently paced as well, with scenes that drag on needlessly, or that rush through with overwhelming exposition. The film’s ending hints at a sequel, but I will not be lining up for it.
I honestly didn’t think I was going to have this kind of reaction to this movie. Certainly I didn’t think I would have the fiery hatred for it that I do now, but I do, and I can think of no reason to recommend this movie to anyone. Ender's Game is up there with The Host and The Lone Ranger as one of the worst films I've watched all year.
* / *****