Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin
Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff
Hailee Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian
Abigail Breslin as Valentine Wiggin
Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham
Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson
Aramis Knight as Bean
Suraj Partha as Alai
Moises Arias as Bonzo Madrid
Khylin Rhambo as Dink Meeker
Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak as Peter Wiggin
Nonso Anozie as Sergeant Dap
Conor Carroll as Bernard
Directed by Gavin Hood
Great performances by Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford, a thought provoking storyline, and cool effects make "Ender's Game" a sci-fi film that both adults and children can enjoy.
"Ender's Game" is based on the book by Orson Scott Card.
After the earth is attacked by an insect-like race known as the Formic, mankind barely survives the encounter. Over the following years, the remaining nations unite to form a military force to face off against the aliens when they are inevitably expected to return. But they look to an unexpected place to find the future leaders and strategists in the oncoming war – children.
In the military school grooming these children in military tactics, Ender Wiggins quickly rises above the ranks. He's a gifted genius, but it makes him the target of bullies and the envy of his peers. Yet Ender also has a dark side that allows him to deal with those threats, and that's what makes Colonel Graff take notice of him. Graff recruits Ender for special training with the best of the best.
At Graff's training facility on a space station, Ender makes new friends and new enemies. He and the other children learn tactics by playing a form of zero gravity laser tag. Ender again proves his genius, but as he will soon discover there is a lot more at stake than his good grades.
"Ender's Game" is rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.
I read "Ender's Game" something like 20 years ago and enjoyed it, and my son also recently read it and became a fan as well. So we were both pleased to see it finally make it to the big screen. While I only remembered the basic plot of the book, my son confirmed that the movie was pretty faithful to Orson Scott Card's novel (with there still being some notable differences). If I had to explain this film to someone that had never read the novel, I'd say it was like a sci-fi Harry Potter. Our young hero rises above an abusive background, goes to a cool school that any kid would love, makes some new friends and enemies, and is eventually forced to embrace his role as ‘the Chosen One.' Colonel Graff is Dumbledore, Petra is Hermione, Bean is Ron, etc etc etc. Yeah, that's an oversimplification, but you get the idea.
"Ender's Game" offers up some unique food for thought on its own, however. It deals with the touchy issue of bullying and defending yourself. It discusses the fine balance between treating someone as a child or an adult. Genocide is a major topic as well, but one of the central themes that might have seemed unrealistic 20 years ago now is a lot more realistic. Kids in this movie are depicted doing simulations and training exercises of leading military battles and remotely attacking the enemy. Now in a world where operating a drone is no different than playing a video game, the idea that a kid could play a video game better than an adult is not all that outlandish. In a desperate situation, would you rely on a child to fight for you? "Ender's Game" brings up a lot of topics for discussion unlike many other movies, and that makes it thought provoking.
Asa Butterfield leads the cast as Ender Wiggin. This film would sink or swim based on his performance and he fortunately does an excellent job. He's believable as a military genius, a leader of his peers, and a boy on the brink of manhood. That's a lot of pressure for any actor, but Butterfield makes it work. Harrison Ford takes a co-starring role as Colonel Graff and he is excellent as well. Ford doesn't really come to mind when you think of actors that work with children a lot, but if you look back at "Witness," "Mosquito Coast," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and many of his other films, you see that he has a successful history of working with kids. He is well paired here with Butterfield. His character is complicated in that he's using the children as he would any other tool in his arsenal, but at the same time the stakes are so high you understand his motives. The fate of the human race is literally in his hands and those of his students. That makes Graff a lot more sympathetic and interesting and you understand why Ford took the role.
Butterfield and Ford are supported by an excellent cast of actors who are both known and unknown. Hailee Steinfeld is notable as Petra Arkanian. She's grown up a lot from her days in "True Grit." Viola Davis is well-paired with Harrison Ford as Major Gwen Anderson. She's the heart of the leadership while Ford is the iron will. Ben Kingsley also brings a lot of energy into the storyline when he appears as Mazer Rackham, but he has surprisingly little screentime in the film. The unknown cast is pretty good as well since you watch them and don't think of anything but their onscreen characters. Aramis Knight plays Bean, Suraj Partha is Alai, and Nonso Anozie brings comic relief as Sergeant Dap. Moises Arias plays a great villain as Bonzo Madrid. My kids were also amazed to see Brandon Soo Hoo from Cartoon Network's "Incredible Crew" as Fly Molo. I had no idea who he was, but they were pretty excited to see him.
The visual effects in "Ender's Game" are pretty impressive. The space battles are interesting as they depict the Formic ships and human drones as swarms. Most space battles aren't depicted as seemingly chaotic swarms of insects or schools of fish, so it was a unique take. And when the climactic final space battle does occur, it's pretty breathtaking. The zero gravity laser tag battles are also well executed. As soon as my younger son saw them, he said, "I want to do that!" That's good considering how, after he saw the trailer for "Gravity," he declared that he never wanted to go into space.
What Didn't Work:
"Ender's Game" does have some problems. At nearly two hours long, it does feel like it drags in parts. There are long stretches where there is only quiet dialogue between characters and not a lot happens. I generally don't have a problem with that, but I could tell both adults and children were getting bored in the screening I attended. There is also a side story where Ender plays a video game as a mouse. It's a tad confusing and it feels like it derails the main story whenever it transitions over to it. That video game storyline leads to an event at the end that doesn't translate well from the book to the big screen. I won't spoil it here, but that ending just didn't feel like it fit well with the rest of the story.
I'm also really confused why they aren't doing a 3D release of this film. You'd think that a movie with a zero-g laser tag game as a major feature would be the perfect place to use 3D. You don't have to look any further than "Gravity" to understand why. The same goes for the space battles. Ships flying in and out of the screen always look great in 3D.
Finally, I felt like the tagline on the movie posters and trailers actually gave away the big twist of the film. I can't understand at all why they would spoil it there. Speaking of the trailers, they showed probably 90% of the movie. There were very few scenes that were new, so it took away from the theatrical experience.
The Bottom Line:
"Ender's Game" is a solid sci-fi adventure that I think both adults and kids will enjoy. Despite the lulls in the pacing, there's plenty here to make it worth checking out on the big screen.