I am astonished that I didn’t hate this movie. The trailers were awful, the material looked like lowest common denominator teen lit, the book is old enough to have been robbed of most of its originality by now, and it’s simply hard to believe an author with such a restricted worldview would be capable of legitimate entertainment. Luckily, once the lights dim and the distractions are gone all there is is the film and its viewer and over time Ender’s Game evolves into a decent piece of right-down-the-middle low key science fiction. It definitely skews young and there’s a distinct lack of meat to it, but the film does a decent job of latching onto Star Wars, Starship Troopers, and Harry Potter tendrils and hangs on for dear life. There’s also a very strong anti-bullying bent to the proceedings as well as a Big Brother motif and it gives the film some teeth. Under the right circumstances this may actually be a film that pushes younger audiences into deeper terrain and that’s always a good thing.
Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield) is a prodigy. The world forbids more than two children per household but Ender is the exception. Raised to lead the devastated forces of Earth against an alien threat that nearly ended civilization, he is tested and monitored until it is his time to become a “Launchie”. Overseeing his progress are the quintessential good cop and bad cop. Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson aims to find his emotional center and help him grow as a person and have a balance while Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff wants to push him harder and harder until he either breaks or is ready to lead. In the middle of them is Ender, a scrawny unspectacular boy graced with superior intellect and empathy. Traits that can either make the difference or lead to failure Guess which.
There is a lot of familiarity here whether due to the original novel’s prescience or writer/director Gavin (The godawful X-Men Origins: Wolverine) Hood’s four corner approach. There’s a Quidditch vibe to the main training stage with the groups of young cadets all grouped into different ‘houses”. There’s a toned down Full Metal Jacket inspired tone to the boot camp scenes, colored heavily with doses from Starship Troopers. if you’re going to crib, crib from the best. Familiar tropes aside, Ender’s Game tries to accomplish a lot and succeeds at about half. The family subplot running through the film carries no resonance and it seems everyone is manipulating the lead character to the point that it’s hard to root for anyone but Ender himself. The evil bug-like aliens that serve as the entire film’s threat are practically nonexistent, and the filmmaker’s heavy use of spoken exposition wears thin and the threat loses its bite. It’s also apparent that Hood lacks the genre knowledge or savvy to make the film a little more effective for adults but the movie isn’t without its virtues. Digital Domain is a partner in the film so the special effects are above average. The film picks up steam as it goes which is a nice change of pace in genre efforts that mistake “more” for “better”. There’s a nice gutpunch in the film’s climax that defies young-skewed movies. With a better musical score, a more lucid approach to the action scenes, and a little more ambition it could have been that rare breakthrough effort.
Guy Ritchie favorite Nonso Anozie brings much needed fun to the mix as a gruff commander. Butterfield is fine in his role though it does take some time to accept this frail young man as someone capable in a fight. The young folks cover every nationality so as to not offend. There’s even a goblin-like squad leader (Moises Arias) there to serve as Ender’s moral opposite. True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld is also present to provide exposition and an awkward and unnecessary love interest. Harrison Ford surprisingly doesn’t sleepwalk in his role as Ender’s questionable mentor and Ben Kinglsey enlivens the film’s last act. There’s a pro-nature and anti-authority element to Ender’s Game and since it comes along the same year as the similarly themed and far inferior After Earth it’s a worthy addition to the year. It also would have been right at home in the midst of 80’s kid-centric genre fare like The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, and the like. It’s a worthy matinee out with your kids up to the age of sixteen. That’s about it, but it certainly doesn’t offend.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars