A film review by Craig J. Koban November 8, 2013


2013, PG-13, 114 mins.


Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin  /  Hailee Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian  /  Harrison Ford as Colonel Hyrum Graff  /  Abigail Breslin as Valentine Wiggin  /  Aramis Knight as Bean  /  Moisés Arias as Bonzo  /  Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak as Peter Wiggin  /  Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson  /  Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham  /  Suraj Partha as Alai  /  Khlylin Rhambo as Dink Meeker 

Written and directed by Gavin Hood  /  Based on the novel by Orson Scott Card

ENDER’S GAME has had on an awfully long and semi-troubled journey towards the big screen since being published way back in 1985.  The film rights and artistic control of Orson Scott Card’s futuristic military sci-fi novel have been held by the author himself all of these years, which subsequently has not allowed for a film adaptation to come to successful fruition.  Nearly three decades later, fans of the literary source material can now breathe collective sighs of relief, but the question now remains: Is the ENDER’S GAME film any good? 

The short answer: Yes, for the most part. 

Card’s ENDER’S GAME has many endlessly fascinating themes at its core, such as the nature of “just" warfare and genocide, the usage of children for militaristic endeavors, and whether or not sacrificing the innocence of children – or one child in particular – is worth the price of saving the entire human race at the expense of eradicating another species.  Thankfully, director Gavin Hood (X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) does not lose sight of these weighty and contemplative issues at the expense of state of the art eye candy and opulent visual effects.  His screenplay manages to explore the source material’s themes while also doing a rather good job of developing the main character.  And even though there are times when ENDER’S GAME feels like it's trying to pack far too much narrative information into its somewhat short 114 minutes, the film nonetheless manages to actually have something legitimate to say, which far too many brain-dead and comatose sci-fi films oftentimes fail to do.  

The overall setup to ENDER’S GAME is not altogether novel or fresh, but it’s the follow-through after this setup that is: It begins in the present when an alien race of insectoids known as the “Formacs” launch an invasion of Earth that nearly decimates the planet and all of humanity.  Alas, one lone savoir, of sorts, Mazer Rackman, manages to find a way to destroy the mothership in a manner that would ultimately have him labeled as a war hero and legend.  The Formac, as a result, were all but defeated, but the anxiety of future attacks loomed large in the war's wake, which led to five decades-plus of the world building up its military defensives.  Hmmm…sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? 



The film then flashfowards into the future and we learn of an elaborate and expensive military training program that nabs the smartest kids – many often barely in their teens – and places them in Battle School to develop their tactical minds to help lead the charge against a possible Formac attack.  One of the children in question is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, the wonderfully natural child actor from HUGO) that is the third born child in a family that, considering society’s laws of a strict two-kid maximum – is somewhat of a fringe figure.  However, many military leaders, especially Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, returning to space after a long absence) seems limitless potential in Ender to become the next Mazer Rackman.  Ender is indeed recruited, but finds himself largely alienated from his other recruits, leaving him the dubious task of not only winning over his superior officers, but others in the school as well that don’t want him there. 

The film spends a considerable amount of time in its middle sections exploring Ender’s rights of passage as well as his training sequences, which involves zero gravity war games where teams fly up, down, sideways, etc and try to get the strategic advantage over the other.  Hood films all of these sequences using remarkable CGI effects and stunt work, even though the more scenes like this that we are given the more visually repetitive them seem to become (there’s perhaps only so much you can do with children trying to zap each other in a zero-G sphere).  Fortunately, these moments compliment the reasonably strong character development, as we get a glimpse into what it takes for Ender to go from an isolated and socially ostracized kid to a fearless, resourceful, brilliant, and respected military mind…and all at an age before he can get a driver’s license on Earth. 

If the title character’s casting were botched, then I think that the whole film would have dramatically imploded on itself.  Asa Butterfield, for such a relatively young performer, evokes a maturity, poise, and raw confidence as Ender that allows him to more than hold his own against actors like Ford on screen.  His performance is tricky because it has to tread a thorny high wire act of relaying the lost innocence of Ender and his vulnerability while, at the same time, showing him as a kid of dark impulses that allows almost no one – even his higher ups – to get in his way.  His scenes with Ford – who is predictably, but reliably, all growling bravado as Graff – have a real give-and-take intensity.  Their dynamic as well is also compelling: Graff essentially sees Ender as a weapon to hone and define as he desires, and Ender certainly understands Graff’s methods and ideology, but tries to confidently stand on his own two feat and become an self-actualized person in the process. 

Again, ENDER’S GAME is at its best when it explores the whole convoluted notion of using boys like Ender for the purposes of eradicating the enemy.  The morally dicey epicenter of the film is whether or not Ender is indeed an actual hero.  Or, is he just a weapon in the military’s arsenal being tooled and prepped for the next Formac invasion?  Then comes the film’s late breaking third act twist – which I will not obviously spoil – that opens up a whole new floodgate of difficult conundrums on the nature of warfare and whether the systematic extermination of a species is ever justifiable.   There is an densely packed ambition buried into ENDER’S GAME that makes it stand far apart from the pack of other witless sci-fi thrillers, not to mention the relative pack of other recent films with young adult centric protagonists.  The ramifications for a character’s late-stage actions have never felt so unnerving as they do in ENDER’S GAME. 

The film’s third act, though, does lead into a fairly clunky epilogue that seems more interested in propelling the franchise forward than with providing for a satisfying ending that hints a future installments.  Some of the side characters as well are a bit underwritten, such as one played by Ben Kingsley – sporting an uber sweet full facial tattoo – and another played by TRUE GRIT’s truly fine Hailee Stanfield, who plays a fellow recruit of Ender’s that’s also – possibly-maybe – a love interest, but the script cant really decide.  Lastly, I don’t think that ENDER’S GAME has that sensation of lasting or lingering staying power as many other iconic sci-fi classics maintain.  Yet, Gavin Hood does a slick and professional job of harnessing the literary material and, even better, ENDER’S GAME manages to have a brain in its head and wishes to promote discussion in viewers regarding its themes after the credits roll by.  For those that bemoan the lack of intelligent ideas-based sci-fi, then ENDER’S GAME may be your medicine.  

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