While I’ve never read the cult favorite book that it’s based on (and likely won’t ever due to author Orson Scott Card‘s rather unfortunate and vocal opinions on certain social issues), Ender’s Game strikes me as a film that’s lost just a little bit in translation. Don’t get me wrong, this is a well made and solidly entertaining science fiction flick, but I have the distinct feeling that the novel offered up more than the movie ultimately does. What probably was more on the thought-provoking side stays mostly on the surface here (though not always), but that’s not to say that this film isn’t without merit. It’s a solidly well acted, directed, and written sci-fi tale that should be quite enjoyable to most, even if none of those aspects are perfectly done. Even hardcore fans of the book likely won’t be shaking their fists at what writer/director Gavin Hood has put forth here. With a strong lead performance from Asa Butterfield and a surprisingly good supporting turn from Harrison Ford, there’s more going on here than just the visuals. Though not without flaws, Ender’s Game is an easy one to recommend, especially if you’re looking for something in this genre. We could very well have a new sci-fi franchise on our hands here if the box office merits it. The books are out there, so it’s up to the audience now to determine if they want it or not.
Set in the near future (though there’s an emphasis more on “future” than the “near” part), the film picks up in the years after Earth survived an attack from the alien called the Formics. They were just barely beaten back by humanity, so a concerted effort has been made to make sure they never get that close again. To that end, children have been selected to become the next great military leaders. One such child, Ender Wiggin (Butterfield), is considered potentially the brightest of them all for his tactical genius. Observed by Colonel Graff (Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), they see how Ender is always thinking ahead and potentially could be humanity’s savior. As such, Graff consistently promotes Ender, all the while testing him in newer and more strenuous ways. Ender is constantly kept at odds with his fellow trainees, none more so than alpha male type Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). He has an ally though, and potentially a love interest, in Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), the only person he seems to be able to connect with, aside from his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) back home. As it appears that the Formics could be preparing for another fight, Ender is prepped for final training, leading to the notorious twist in the book. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that it probably worked better on the page. Still, it’s hardly a fatal error.
Most of the performances here are at least decently good, though a bunch could have used more fleshing out for their characters. I really liked what Asa Butterfield brought to the role. He always seems like a child, but you buy into him as an ace tactician. Butterfield also sells his transformation into a leader, even when the script doesn’t really do as much for him as it should. He’s clearly the acting highlight in the cast, though Harrison Ford comes in second. Too often he’s a caricature these days, but Ford seems invested here, and it shows. His character is single-minded, but never comes off one note. As for the other notable adults, Viola Davis is mostly wasted while Ben Kingsley completely is as a legendary pilot turned instructor. The same can be said for Abigail Breslin, who’s barely given anything to do. Hailee Steinfeld, on the other hand, is solid and makes the most of her part, though she’s not spectacular. Moises Arias is fine, but after seeing him play a bizarre comedic role in The Kings of Summer earlier this year, it was hard to buy him as a jock. Other supporting players include Nonso Anozie, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, and others, but it’s Butterfield and Ford that leave an impression.
As a filmmaker, Gavin Hood has been wildly uneven throughout his career so far. That being said, this is his best work in some time. Hood’s direction is crisp, while his writing is strong for the most part, aside from not giving certain characters much to do. There are three notable parts where I think he comes up a little short, but they don’t sink the movie. Basically, the beginning is a little rough, the middle has a small pacing hump to get over, and the climax goes on for far too long after a natural ending point. Aside from that, Hood doesn’t dumb things down and he presents some very fine visuals. The sequences in the Battle Room are done in an imaginative way, while the production on the whole feels well thought out. The final test is also handled well, though it’s another instance of something probably being a little more powerful in the book. Still, there’s a bit of a punch packed into the twist, even if I saw it coming and hoped it would be something different.
Provided you’re not expecting a game changer here, no pun intended, Ender’s Game is a sci-fi adventure that’s serious throughout and yet consistently entertaining as well. None of the flaws are fatal, and the good definitely outweighs the bad. Without reservation, I can tell you that this is a worthwhile film that could have broad appeal. Unless you consider anything involving the author to be a deal breaker (though apparently he’s getting no money from the movie, so that should help with that particular protest at least a bit), you should check out Ender’s Game.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!