Controversial author Orson Scott Card’s supposedly “unfilmable” sci-fi classic novel finally hits the big screen with a big, bold take on material that fails to ever fully engage. As it turns out, anything is filmable, as long as the creative forces behind it are willing to chop out essential bits, refashion characters as they see fit, and go exceedingly heavy-handed when it comes to delivering thematic and tonal messages. Fortunately, what Ender’s Game lacks in satisfying scripting, it nearly makes up for with a captivating and well-tuned performance from its young lead and a set of action sequences that carry their weight in emotion and impact.
Starring Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, the film centers on the young genius and his very relatable struggle to marry the two warring parts of his soul – the compassion his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) exhibits and the terrifying violent tendencies that mar his brother Peter – so that he may prove successful at his life’s work. Of course, Ender’s understandable issues are made significantly more difficult by the fact that he’s being groomed to lead the entire planet’s army in a war against seemingly nefarious bug-like creatures (Formics) that previously attacked Earth. And you thought your middle school years were hard.
When we first meet Ender, he’s been apparently tossed out of a highly sought-after training program that both of his older siblings already biffed big time, while also still reeling from a violent attack that unleashed some sort of bully-beating beast within him. Things aren’t so good for young Ender, so when the stiff-upper-lipped Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, clearly having a lot of fun here) shows up and offers him a place in the international army’s Battle School, it looks like they’re starting to turn around. Not so fast, young solider! Graff, convinced that Ender is the key to the success of the International Fleet and their decades-long battle with the Formics, ensures that the still-child will be almost totally isolated and exhausted during his training, all in service to shaping the sort of leader that Graff thinks can win the war. Cue sad times at Battle School.
Though Ender has been aged up from the original work (he was just six years old at the start of Card’s novel, and it followed him until the age of ten), the emotional impact of children being used to fight wars that even the adults around them fail to fully understand is still notable and jarring. Of course, the greatest benefit of turning Ender into a gangly tween is that it allowed the production to cast the very talented Asa Butterfield in the role, a part in which he truly excels. Ender is, without question, a very complicated character prone to the sort of vacillations in behavior that could turn anyone against him (his tendency to violence is unsettling, to say the least), but Butterfield infuses him with enough sympathy and character to make him irresistibly engaging to follow. If there’s anything that makes Ender’s Game worth a watch, it’s Butterfield’s near-perfect performance.
Elsewhere, certain key performances aren’t so good. Though she plays a far more significant (and layered) role in Card’s novel, the part of Ender’s beloved older sister Valentine has been cut notably down, and it’s one of the few edits that works to the film’s advantage. Breslin, while capable of turning in charming and balanced work, doesn’t do much with her Valentine, styling her as a weepy teen prone to absolutely wooden line delivery. It doesn’t help that Hood’s screenplay doesn’t give her anything in the way of original words (nearly everything Valentine says reads as a cliché), but paired with a weak performance, Valentine is a throwaway character who does little to live up the legacy written for her on the page.
The rest of the film’s supporting cast, however, is quite solid, especially Hailee Steinfeld as Ender’s eventual best friend Petra, Viola Davis as Major Anderson (here re-sexed as a woman, all the better to offer the sort of compassion that’s in short supply elsewhere), and Ben Kingsley as a surprising mentor to Ender. As Ender’s Battle School nemesis Bonzo Madrid, Moises Arias absolutely commits to his role, and while the disparity in height between the actor and everyone else around him inevitably stirs chuckles, it does work to further the idea of Bonzo as a tiny tyrant bent on destruction, no matter how impossible it seems.
The rest of the kids of Ender’s Game look like actual kids, simply because they are, as the film is void of casting tricks meant to make us believe a twentysomething is actually a tween, and the results effectively convey how inherently upsetting it is that children are tasked with this level of violence.
The film has excised giant chunks of the novel – including large subplots about the politics of Earth’s warring ruling parties, Peter and Valentine’s individual involvements with rabble-rousing publicly posted essays and a subsequent rise to power, the colonization of the asteroid Eros (reworked here to confusing results), and much more – and subsequently the film frequently feels uneven and truncated. Even audience members not familiar with Card’s novel will likely feel that something is missing, as the film skims over big pieces of narrative, loosely connects events, and employs distracting voiceover to deliver essential pieces of information.
Technically speaking, Ender’s Game gets off to a rocky start before building into some incredible and eye-popping sequences that genuinely thrill. For the film’s first half, the visual effects disappoint, and the sense that Ender’s Game is set in some advanced future is virtually nonexistent, but things amp up over the film’s runtime, and once Ender and his cohorts begin to train in the zero gravity “Battle Room,” Ender’s Game actually starts to look like an engaging piece of sci-fi action. Steve Jablonsky’s score is particularly effective at tying together action and emotion, and its presence is a very welcome one in an otherwise uneven production.
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