Review: Ender's Game
PLOT: Years after the planet is attacked by an ant-like alien race called the Formics, a military school has been set up to find brilliant strategists among Earth's young, with the idea that a child's decision making skills will lack an adult's empathy or reserve. Enter Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield)- a child prodigy with a gift for strategy. He's whisked off to battle school by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) for the final stage of his training, in the hope that he'll be able to wipe out the Formic threat once and for all.
REVIEW:Chalk this one up as a pleasant surprise. While Orson Scott Card's novel, ENDER'S GAME has long been a favorite of the sci-fi community, I can't say I've ever had the chance to read it. Sadly, my only knowledge of Card comes from the controversy surrounding his alleged homophobia, and to be sure, this did not endear me to the man. However, one must separate the art from the artist, and while he may well be an ignorant homophobe, the same obviously can't be said for the people involved with this film, so I tried to watch it with an open mind.
Despite my misgivings, I ended up thoroughly enjoying ENDER'S GAME. It's funny that this is being marketed as some kind of kid's sci-fi adventure and a potential new franchise as it's an exceedingly dark movie. Early on, Viola Davis' character remarks on the inherent evil of Earth's military turning children into soldiers, and to be sure, the film does not underplay the dehumanizing effect violence has on a young person's mind. It's a surprisingly tough movie, and while director Gavin Hood may have misfired with X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, he bounces back in a big way with this. It's worth remembering that TSOTSI, the film that put Hood on the map, also examined violence and children. He keeps ENDER'S GAME fairly gritty for a big November tent-pole release.
Asa Butterfield, as young Ender, is undoubtedly the key to the movie's success. In his first role since HUGO, fifteen-year-old Butterfield makes for an endearing protagonist. He plays Ender like an adult trapped in a child's body, and he's utterly free of any precociousness. Here, he's reminiscent of Daniel Radcliffe in one of the latter HARRY POTTER films.
Butterfield really dominates the film. Co-star Harrison Ford, in his big return to sci-fi, can't help but take a backseat throughout. Over the last decade or so, Ford's grown into a gruff, austere presence on the big-screen, but for once, this is a role that suits that tendency. It's definitely not much of a stretch for him, although there are a few scenes opposite Viola Davis as his compassionate underling that give him room to stretch a little more than usual. Still, it's all a little familiar for Ford. Ben Kingsley, in a small role as a legendary- and heavily tattooed Maori soldier, fares better, and still has good chemistry with his HUGO co-star Butterfield.
The rest of the young actors are also quite good, with TRUE GRIT's Hailee Steinfeld as his older friend Petra, Abigail Breslin as his kindly sister Valentine, and THE KINGS OF SUMMER scene-stealer Moises Arias as a particularly cruel fellow student of Ender's. Topping it all of is a surprisingly strong score by TRANSFORMERS composer Steve Jablonsky.
Probably the only area ENDER'S GAME really comes up short is the visualization of a mind-controlled video game Ender trains on, that leads to an important revelation in the third act. The design of the game is a little shlocky and too reminiscent of something one would download for their iPad than a state-of-the-art military mind-bender from hundreds of years in the future. But alas, that's a fairly minor thing. More time could have also been spent with Ender's family back home, and his conflict with his psychotic older brother feels a bit undercooked, which is a shame as it could have given him a juicy nemesis to work against. A quick perusal of the novel's synopsis on Wikipedia reveals that he plays a more prominent part in the book.
What really makes ENDER'S GAME is the ingenious ending, which is apparently faithful to Card's original novel. It gives the film a poignant punch that I honestly did not expect, and gave the film a powerful note to end on (whether or not the sequels will be adapted remains to be seen). As such, the movie seems more geared towards older kids, and adult readers of Card's saga that youngsters, although even still they'd probably still enjoy the colorful CGI and action-packed “Battle Room” war games. Whether or not they're able to grasp the more serious ideas at the heart of the movie is another thing, but it's a smart, sophisticated sci-fi yarn, and well worth checking out.