Based on the series of novels by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game begins by telling a story of the past wherein an alien race called the Formics (bug-like creatures reminiscent of the aliens in Starship Troopers) attempted to colonize Earth. The citizens of Earth fought back and won (naturally). Since then humans have been building an army to not only protect themselves from future attacks, but to seek out the Formics and ensure they will never attack again. The army will be made of children, whose naivetÃ© and want to succeed and impress makes them far better candidates than any adult that may question command. In this story, Ender Wiggins is the child chosen to lead said army against the aliens.
Hugo star Asa Butterfield plays Ender, an aggressive yet compassionate boy referred to as a “third” as it is apparently frowned upon for a family to have more than one child. Children are brought up to want to excel as Battle School trainees and the Wiggins family has already seen its first two children and their father fail. Ender shows promise and is lauded for his strategic ability by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) who decides Ender just may be the boy to “save” the human race.
Here lies the strange balancing act Ender’s Game attempts, and largely fails in the early going, before hoping to gain back the audience’s trust late with middling success. Beyond the dilemma of using children as soldiers, the decision to wipe out an entire alien race without first making an attempt to make peace becomes a major thematic sticking point. It’s a dark concept, which is why the childish, amateur nature of the first two acts is a bit unbearable. It makes sense the kids would behave like kids, but the dialogue is so awful and forced the characters appear to have either grown up too fast or not at all and are reciting lines they’ve seen in bad movies rather than anything that could be considered natural.
Added to this, Ender is bullied by a rash of envious children that want to beat him up to either save face or prove some kind of point, and while they are mostly your stereotypical bullies, Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer) as the Salamander squadron leader comes along at a point we’ve already seen Ender bullied by two other children. Enough is enough and wow does Arias come across as an actor trying way too hard.
At the same time, Ender meets fellow Battle School trainee, and Salamander soldier, Petra (True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld) and if as much time was spent building their friendship as is spent bullying Ender it’s a friendship that wouldn’t have seemed so forced. As it is Steinfeld must immediately come to Ender’s cause. In the end both are decent enough actors to make it work, but not without some cringe-worthy scenes beforehand.
The training the kids go through is essentially Lazer Tag in zero-G, where the combatants work as teams to proclaim victory. Sold as a game, and therefore no real world consequences exist, the idea of sacrificing yourself for the greater good is impressed upon the trainees early and celebrated. Obviously this continues the dark and murky path to the end goal and I can see what writer-director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) was attempting to do in making the first half more childish and the second half more serious and adult, but a lot of the dialogue is too clunky and weighty, tailor-made for a Nickelodeon young adult TV series rather than a feature film.
What worked a little more than it probably should have was Harrison Ford as Graff, a man hellbent on the destruction of the Formics who takes the utmost advantage of the children he’s training, understanding full well the manipulative tactics they’re taking and convinced himself it’s for the greater good. As an actor Ford seems tired and uninterested, but these are characteristics that seem to work for this character.
Surprisingly, I also thought composer Steve Jablonsky‘s score served several of the scenes quite well. There is still a lot of Transformers in what he’s doing, which is to say some of it is overly loud and intrusive, but a lot of his music serves the film well.
With a budget north of $100 million, a lot of money appears to be up on the screen in terms of visual effects and I was quite surprised to see effects house Digital Domain co-produced the feature, it’s not a first in the highly competitive effects industry, but it’s a risk. The entire third act is essentially one big visual effect as Ender leads his team of soldiers in training sequences meant to prepare them for the coming war.
There’s something of a video game approach to the entire film, which is apt considering the narrative, but it also makes the heavy-handed finale a little questionable in terms of how it’s all handled.
Ender’s Game is clearly an attempt to jumpstart yet another young adult franchise, but I’m not sure this is a franchise with enough initial support to propel it too far into the future and I’m not sure the film is good enough to inspire many newcomers. The story is fascinating and the themes and modern world correlation are definitely relevant to today, but the project overall isn’t good enough to support it all. If audiences view it anything like I did, they’ll likely be intrigued by the narrative, but understand it could have been handled a little better and by the time the end comes around and it’s made clear the intention is to make several of these films it’s only proper to feel cheated at the assumption we didn’t come to see just one movie, but are already anticipating more.
Let this be a lesson to filmmakers, prove yourself first and only then expect the audience wants to continue living in your world. Otherwise you just come across as arrogant and greedy, an all-too-obvious description of today’s Hollywood.