November 11th, 2013
Ender’s Game is a visually exciting, morally challenging film that seeks to be more than the average space opera. It succeeds and fails in equal measure, but entertains even as it asks far deeper questions and portrays far deeper issues than the kids that might flock to it would expect.
Scrawny 14-year-old geek Ender Wiggin is recruited to a battle school orbiting the earth, that trains kids. They are supposedly the best skilled at computers and the speedy critical thinking needed to fight a bug-like race called the Formics, who decimated the planet some 50 years in the past. To prepare, Wiggin and the other recruits compete and work with each other in a variety of ways, including mental aptitude and strategy tests, hand to hand combat and tag battles in a vast zero-gravity chamber. The international military leaders believe the return and attack by these aliens is imminent.
This is The Last Starfighter meets Starship Troopers, with heaping side helpings of The Hunger Games and Tron: Legacy. That cinematic melange shows both its strengths and its undoing.
Cinematographer Donald McAlpine of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet lends an interesting color palette and appropriately grand scale to the movie as a whole. The production design team of Sean Haworth and Ben Procter take their combined art department experience working on The Matrix movies, Avatar, Independence Day and Men In Black to create an off-world military complex and alien environments that are both believable and visually compelling.
There are more than a few echoes of Tron: Legacy, particularly in the costume design and music, and the zero-gravity mock battles feel like they are cobbled together from a mix of Tron and The Last Starfighter. While derivative, none of this is overly distracting and all of it serves the story at hand. There may be nothing new under the sun, but in IMAX what is imitation and what is invention falls away as the WOW factor takes over.
There is one reason — above all the special effects and production values—that this famously unfilmable novel works onscreen. Without the consistently complex characterization of Ender Wiggin by Asa Butterfield, balancing stoicism and thoughtful compassion as he navigates the moral conundrum of first strikes and just wars, there would be no Ender’s Game.
In this challenging role, Butterfield carries the audience through every crack and weakness of the film, much like Ender drives his fellow “Launchies” from disdain to trusting in him, by what seems like sheer force of will. Having just grown into his saucer-eyed blue stare, he makes great use of them against his gangly frame and feed-him-a-cookie thinness, as he shows how much his wits and genius critical thinking render inconsequential his lack of muscle mass.
Of decided added benefit to both teens and older movie lovers, is the casting of co-stars including sci-fi hero Harrison Ford, and essentially the only three female characters played by Oscar-nominated actresses: Twice-nominated Viola Davis, and teen acting queens Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin.
The female roles are one of the best aspects of the movie, neatly placed on opposite ends of the spectrum of positive femininity. Vet actress Davis plays Major Gwen Anderson, who offers a foil to Graff’s growing inhumanity as war creeps closer to earth. She may be establishment, but still questions out loud the morality, even in a time of war, of pushing these teens to and beyond their emotional and physical limits. She is never anything but wholly believable, a woman in a position of power who maintains her moral integrity.
Breslin is Ender’s beloved sister, Valentine, who washes out of battle school for being too empathetic. She is supportive, loving, and inspiring, and allows Ender to engage his compassionate side, which is essential to the audience’s connection with the otherwise stoic character, and which we see most in their interactions with each other.
Steinfeld is underused as Petra Arkanian, the battle schoolmate and willing training partner who fights and strategizes rings around most of her peers. She is brilliant, tough and skillful with a laser. The audience feels the genuine camaraderie and friendship chemistry between she and Butterfield’s character whenever they are together, and it adds warmth and authenticity to the otherwise emotionally distant and rote action.
Hyper-militaristic Colonel Graff, played by a gruff Ford in a role antithetical to Han Solo, is all business, pitiless and stripped of all joy, and Butterfield’s Wiggin, who is icy and enigmatic, is about as far from whiny “I was going to Toshi station to pick up some power converters” Luke Skywalker as one could get. There is an intensity in their interactions, and a sparring of wills between them.
Would Wiggin’s blind obedience without question, or a considered acceptance of being part of a team better serve their aim? The film never develops their relationship enough to reveal the motivation for either character, and it is a testament to both actors that we as an audience are able to ascribe ulterior motives to them both instead of losing interest.
Whether the many trouble spots in this movie outweigh the positives, depends on the viewer…Ender’s climb up the ranks past his peers and competitors happens so quickly there is little time to connect to his angst or his fear of losing his family through war, nor is there time to build a cohesive-feeling team for him to lead.
Watching a bunch of kids play an inexplicable and protracted laser tag game in zero gravity with the caveat that no matter what happens, the first to cross a threshold wins, is a bit too reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Quidditch.
Without building understanding for what’s at stake in the audience, it is a good thing the visual effects and exciting action during these mock battles keeps our attention. Also, the obvious similarities to far better films like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, which first portrayed youthful saviors that learn self sacrifice, make this story seem trite… Unfortunate, given the Orson Scott Card novel from 1985 on which it is based predates both those books.
Imagine Harry Potter or Hunger Games ending before the big battle or, well, The Hunger Games. Since almost the entire feature of Ender’s Game takes place during the preparation for battle, the curiosity and confusion in the audience grows to the point of imploding interest. As the end of the story, a big reveal, is telegraphed from nearly the beginning, there is a pervasive lack of enthusiasm when the endless waiting and the supposed payoff meet. We are meant to have a catharsis after watching these child soldiers manipulated like puppets by their elders in uniform.
There is, after all, something rather off-putting about pre-teens in boot camp screaming like the new recruits in Full Metal Jacket. Audiences have not been so desensitized by The Hunger Games that the marching, hazing and rough treatment of the “Launchies” doesn’t get under our skins.
There is quite an irony to the much-publicized and inflammatory anti-gay statements made by Ender’s Game novelist Orson Scott Card that have caused much controversy. One strong theme in the film is individual acceptance and standing up to bullying. The messages in the film are in direct opposition to his hate speak, pointing to positive strength of character, critical thinking and fearless individuality, qualities from which we can all benefit, including Card.
Kudos to director Gavin Hood for attempting to inject deeper questions into a sci-fi action flick. Moral ambiguity as it relates to war, bullying, violence and following orders, as well as the importance of thinking for oneself, are heady subjects to raise with kids after seeing what seems like just a fun science fiction movie. Some will enjoy Ender’s Game for the growing virtuosity of its young star Asa Butterfield.
Others will enjoy this rather dark film because it features teens asked to take on positions of intense responsibility. The characters must answer for themselves what integrity and individuality mean, exclusive of the propaganda and violence happening around them. Audiences might have seen these subjects done before, but the lessons therein, the exciting action, and Butterfield’s portrayal of the title character, just might make it worth seeing again.
3 out of 5 stars