Review: Ender’s Game / Cert: 12A / Director: Gavin Hood / Screenplay: Gavin Hood / Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin / Release Date: October 25th
Based on Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game is a very curious cinematic creature indeed. As a cross between Harry Potter and Starship Troopers, it’s undoubtedly a powerful and at times thought-provoking sci-fi parable but it does seem to fall between two poles-apart stools. Is it a children’s film (the core cast are all youngsters) or is it an adult sci-fi movie using young characters to craft a subtle political allegory, which holds up a mirror, as the best SF should, to the world we live in today? Superficially it’s a big, broad space opera but it’s also desperately talky, low on action and proper thrills and it delivers the most anti-climactic climax in recent genre cinema history. In some ways Ender’s Game is to be applauded for giving the audience what it doesn’t expect and foregoing empty spectacle for something a little more introspective but the end result is a film which seems oddly uncommercial and which may seriously struggle at the box office.
In the future the Earth has successfully repelled – at some cost to life, limb and property – an invasion by a race of alien insects called the Formics (renamed from the much more sniggerable ‘buggers’ of the novel). Earth’s governments are twitchy about a possible second attack and they’re monitoring gathering Formic forces out in deep space. What they need is a new and imaginative way of tactical thinking and to this end(er) they recruit a bunch of game-literate kids who, it’s hoped, can bring a more instinctive and intuitive approach to the battlefield. One such ingénue is Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin (Butterfield), an introverted but brilliant young boy who is press-ganged into joining the International Fleet’s Battle School space station training facility. Here Ender slowly earns the respect of his contemporaries and his elders and finds himself in the Command School and potentially in charge of the entire space fleet. But first he has to prove himself in one final strategic war game simulation where the stakes are the future of Earth itself…
Ender’s Game, despite its good intentions and its remit to tell a proper, hard SF story instead of the usual humans vs. monsters stuff, is just a bit dull. There’s plenty of CGI loveliness to gawp at if you’re so inclined – the initial recreation of the final battle in the first confrontation between humanity and the Formics promises thrills and spills to come – but much of it is fairly mundane spacescape/space station stuff which has a certain 2001 realism about it but quickly becomes tedious to look at. Weightless training sequences seem to go on forever without much in the way of incident and it’s this uneventfulness, which scuppers the back half of the movie once it’s established its world and its story. Ender himself is painfully young-looking and is cold and rather emotionless as a lead character – that’s sort of the point of him, it’s what makes him special and ideal for the task he’s being trained for – but it makes it tough to root for him or care much what happens to him. And unfortunately, not much does happen to him. Under the watchful eye of gruff Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford looking suitably grizzled and war-weary) Ender slowly becomes more assured and more determined. Unfortunate casting ensures that scenes of Ender being tormented by young senior trainee Bonzo, are left floundering by the fact that the actor who plays him (Moises Arias) is about half Butterfield’s size and what looks like a budding romance between Ender and fellow student Valentine (Breslin), which would have given the film a much-needed touch of humanity, comes to nothing. A last-minute appearance by Ben Kingsley as a bizarrely face-painted military hero seems to have little point other than to give Ender a confidence boost and it serves merely to undermine the dramatic punch of the battle which ended the first war between Mankind and the Formics.
Ender’s Game struggles to engender much real enthusiasm but there’s still plenty to admire in its visual aesthetic (it builds its world with utter conviction), its faultless FX and its very worthy attempt to tell a more intelligent SF story than cinema audiences may be used to. But it’s the very fact that it is intelligent and doesn’t go in for cheap thrills and spills which is likely to prove to be its undoing. Time may well see Ender’s Game become a genre classic but modern blockbuster-soaked audiences are likely to be frustrated by its heel-dragging and its sense of inertia.
Expected Rating: 8 out 10