Ender's Game (United States, 2013)

October 31, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ender's Game Poster

Ender's Game, long a staple of science fiction readers, has had a strange, winding trip to the silver screen. For many years, Orson Scott Card refused to sell the rights to the book, wanting to maintain control over the final product. This iteration, the result of numerous screenplay rewrites (several of which were authored by Card), has the author's blessing. He is listed as a producer and is the uncredited writing co-collaborator to director Gavin Hood. Fans of the novel will understand that a sub-two hour running time necessitated numerous changes and the inherent difficulties of working with young children forced changes in characters' ages. However, the movie Ender's Game is recognizable in tone, thematic content, and narrative progression as Card's vision. It has been developed as a stand-alone project with the potential for additional chapters, thereby giving it the potential to satisfy regardless of whether the box office take warrants a sequel.

Ender's Game starts with a familiar sci-fi trope: the alien invasion. Some 50 years before the movie's first present-day scene, Earth became Ground Zero for an attack from the space by giant ant-like creatures called "Formics." They came, they saw, and they would have conquered if not for a daring move by war hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). The Formic were beaten but not destroyed and the population of Earth lives in fear of their return. So, over the past five decades, the military has developed a training program whereby the best and the brightest children are put through rigorous training. Weapons were developed and leaders honed in the hope that when it comes time for the final confrontation with the Formic, Earth will be ready. Into that cauldron comes Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), the third child of a family in a society that limits most families to two offspring. Military leaders see much potential in Ender to be the next great battle commander, the heir to Mazer Rackham's legacy. But can Ender pass through the furnace and emerge fully forged or will the experience melt and break him?

Ender's Game is uneven - at times almost maddeningly so - with the first half offering more enjoyment than the second. Perhaps that's because, in military-style movies, I often prefer the training segments to the battle sequences. For most of its first half, Ender's Game does a nice job of developing the main character and illustrating the sharpness and creativity that makes him a prized pupil of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Ender doesn't just win; he dominates. During the second half, however, character development takes a back seat to narrative thrust. The movie speeds up and becomes almost clumsy in the way it rushes through things. The "epilogue" is an example of this - a significant incident reduced to an afterthought. The big battle, while maintaining its surprise element, works much better in the book than on the screen. Because of the way it's established, there's an element of anticlimax to the entire thing.

Outside of Ender and Graff, there aren't many people who could rightfully be called "characters." Ben Kingsley plays veteran hero Mazer Rackham, but he's not given much more to do than look tough, never smile, and speak his dialogue using what appears to be a hybrid cockney/New Zealand accent. Abigail Breslin plays Ender's sister, Valentine, who is the embodiment of compassion. Hailee Steinfeld, more at home here than as Juliet, is Petra Arakanian, Ender's friend and quasi-love interest. The romance is kept very low key since it's not found anywhere in the source material. Finally, double Oscar nominee Viola Davis gets to stand around looking sharp in her military attire while contributing little else.

The film's biggest star is Harrison Ford and his take on Graff (who would have been more appropriately named Gruff) is akin to what might expect from a war-weary Han Solo who has lost his capacity for wisecracking. At least this is a better role for Ford than Paranoia. Meanwhile, his young co-star, Asa Butterfield, capably holds his own, adding his solid and believable performance here to an equally solid and believable performance in Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

The central themes of Card's book remain intact, chief of which relate to the ethics of defensive genocide. There are no easy answers to the questions posed by this issue and Ender's Game, to its credit, doesn't try to provide Hollywood-style facile resolutions. The movie never gets as dark as it might but neither does it ignore the implications. There's also an interesting side question about whether we act the same way during a simulation (when we know it's artificial) as in a real-life situation. When a commander knows his decisions have genuine life-and-death implications, does he issue orders with the same detachment as when he's playing a "game?"

Ender's Game is visually delightful, at times bordering on spectacular. (And it's not in 3-D!) The space battles have a scope and energy to them. Equally impressive is the spherical battle room, where teams compete in a futuristic zero-G version of paintball. Whatever flaws Ender's Game may possess in terms of pacing, it's never less than stunning to look at, which makes the IMAX version the preferred format.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Ender's Game is that it's about something. Too many science fiction films (I'm thinking about Star Trek into Darkness among others) have become so obsessed with action that they've lost track of some of the basic tenets of the genre. Ender's Game manages to be exciting and engaging while conveying weighty ideas. It's nowhere as complex and involving as Card's novel but, for those who prefer a little more meat on their sci-fi bones, this is an appetizing entrée.

Ender's Game (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2013-11-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1