Ender's Game

Even when I was a young, I didn’t want my big screen heroes to be kids like me. I was far more interested in larger-than-life adults like Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kurt Russell, and Harrison Ford than seeing someone my age who had been “chosen” or “blest” with special gifts that made him smarter or more powerful than adults. While I love kid-sized adventure tales like The Goonies and coming-of-age stories like Stand By Me, when the fate of the entire world rests in the hand of a pre-teen, its very hard for me to get invested. To put it in movie terms, there is a lot more of interest going on in the mind of 18 year-old Luke Skywalker than in 8 year-old Anakin Skywalker. These days, however, as studios aim for a younger and younger demographic, and adults well into their twenties and thirties hang on to their youth for as long as they can, this type of child-hero has become more and more prevalent.

The latest entry in the sci-fi/fantasy world of extra-special kids is Ender’s Game, based on the first in Orson Scott Card’s series of military/sci-fi novels. Being totally unfamiliar with these books, I can’t compare them to writer/director Gavin Hood’s adaptation, but this film version has all the hallmarks of an oversimplified and far too literal movie made from a longer, more nuanced, more fable-like novel. Ender’s Game the movie has lots of impressive sequences, like zero-G fight scenes and epic scale space flights, but the story is a contrived pastiche of overly familiar sci-fi tropes with lifeless dialogue and only the most rudimentary character relationships. We are supposed to be watching a gifted boy develop into a brilliant battle commander as he and his fellow teenage recruits are trained for an upcoming interstellar war, but Hood is unable to create sequences that illustrate how and what Ender is learning. The film just takes its main character from one success to another without explaining how each test (exorcise, game, interaction, whatever) builds upon the others to make him into humanity’s one hope for survival. This picture plays as if written by someone Ender’s age that hasn’t yet read enough to understand what makes for an engaging narrative. 

The young cast featuring Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) all perform their underwritten parts adequately. Hood, when not filming the kids as a team in expansive wide shots where they all dress like identical robots, shoots his actors in extreme close-ups, which accentuate their adolescence, especially in IMAX, by dwelling on their sweaty, spotty complexions (or, in Breslin’s case, her complete lack of blemishes which makes her seem like a CGI character compared to the other actors). The adult actors, Harrison Ford and Viola Davis, come across as bored stars with just one note to play. Only Ben Kingsley, who doesn’t arrive until the third act, is able to make his part remotely interesting.

For anyone under 15, watching a kid demonstrate his video game virtuosity while a bunch of old farts look on might be cool, but for the rest of us, this is hard to take seriously.  There is absolutely nothing in the movie (apart from Ender’s opening narration) that shows us why this kid would be a more strategic and effective tactician than the seasoned veterans played by Ford and Kingsly. Certainly there is nothing that Ender does in the climactic battle that seems especially innovative (other then the amazing planet-destroying weapon the adults have designed and built for him). Ender’s Game has about as much to offer in the way of escapist, big-screen spectacle as Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim; it also has the same amount of squandered potential for exploring interesting themes in an exciting way. It seems to me that if you’re going to make a film about child solders you would want to explore the effects of war on the young people who fight it--not only would that be the responsible thing to do, it would be most interesting aspect of the story. In paying only lip-service to the emotional and psychological aspects of the story Ender’s Game misses its opportunity to be more than just a big, childish video game.

Directed by Gavin Hood
Produced by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Robert Chartoff, Gigi Pritzker, Orson Scott Card, Lynn Hendee, Linda McDonough, and Ed Ulbrich

Screenplay by Gavin Hood
Based on the novel by Orson Scott Card

With: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Khylin Rhambo, Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak, Nonso Anozie, and Gavin Hood

Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Editing: Zach Staenberg and Lee Smith
Music: Steve Jablonsky

Runtime: 114 min
Release Date: 01 November 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1