There are a lot of good ideas floating around Ender’s Game, especially in these days of bullying awareness and childhood marginalization. Within today’s contemporary, everyone earns a “Participant” trophy environment, it’s nice to see a film which forwards exceptionalism, which allows the smart and the strategic to win out over the brawny and the overly physical. Too bad the film adaptation of controversial author Orson Scott Card (let’s not get into his personal political views) award-winning novel doesn’t maintain this particular bent. Instead, we are asked to watch as our underage hero, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), walks the fine line between his inner rage and his high IQ. He’s the Hulk without the bulk, a ticking time bomb of stored-up pre-adolescent anger that must moderate his hate in order to help the Earth survive an impending alien invasion.
We learn that, several decades before, an insect like race known as the Formics, came to our planet looking for water — and a new place to colonize. A war ensued and millions died. A pilot named Mazer Rackman (Ben Kingsley) found a way of destroying the hostile horde, becoming a legend in the process. It’s in his footsteps that candidate trainee Ender wants to walk. His family hopes he won’t washout like his brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) or his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin).
Military overseer Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks he’s “the One,” while Psychological Profiler Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) is worried about the pent up emotions inside him. Through a series of challenges, Ender becomes the star pupil in Graff’s interstellar boot camp. Along with fellow geeks Bean (Aramis Knight), Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy), and sharpshooter Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), he must find a way to defeat the Formic on their home planet, thus ending “all future wars” in the process. If he doesn’t we’re doomed.
Yes, Ender’s Game is yet another example in the long standing genre subcategory we like to call “The Chosen One.” Like Neo in The Matrix or Logan in Logan’s Run, we are dealing with a single individual who is destined to rock the strict social structure he’s been living in and clear a path toward a better tomorrow. With shades of Starship Troopers and a Disney Channel sense of cultural diversity, director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) flirts with fascism while avoiding some of the other traps Card created in his narrative. He’s not always successful, but his efforts are never dull.
In fact, “game” is a good description of what this film feels like. Mimicking the level increments of your typical console title, we get the Xbox version of military training, with Butterfield’s character facing off against the typical barracks tough guy (Moises Arias) before discovering his gift for consistently out-thinking his opponents. By the end, the movie is all zero-G war exercises and interactive attack scenarios. Sure, Hood tries to toss in a bit of depth, giving Ender a moral heart and some familial regret, but the entire movie feels rushed, as if the studio wanted to hurry past pages of Card’s concepts so that the massive CG spectacle of the final confrontation with the Formics can take place.
With several sequel possibilities (thanks to the source material’s literary legacy) and a solid central performance by Butterfield (who looks ready to grow out of the role at any moment), Ender’s Game is one of the better Harry Potter wannabes out there. Along with The Hunger Games, it stays true to its roots while finding ways to make the modern moviegoer happy. It’s not always consistent, and abandons its better concepts early and often, but it offers a consistent level of engagement that few post-Star Wars science fiction films can manage.