Starring : Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley
Director : Gavin Hood
Release Date : 7 Nov 2013
Some stories are simply too big, and when put through the moviemaking process, end up feeling too small instead.
This film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game is a good example of that. Despite there being few flaws in the realisation of this futuristic movie, the overall experience of watching it somehow feels decidedly less epic than it should.
It’s not for lack of trying, however. Card’s novel deals with some big, complex themes, and the movie does try to address them.
It is the near future, and Earth has faced a devastating attack by a race of insect-like aliens called the Formics, with mankind winning only thanks to the actions of legendary International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham.
Since then, the International Military and Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) have done everything they can to prepare for the Formics’ next attack, including training the best and brightest young children in a special Battle School – only children, it seems, have the malleable minds necessary to learn the combat tactics that defeat the Formics.
Marked from birth as a potential candidate, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a quiet yet brilliant boy who catches Graff’s eye as a potential commander. Upon his arrival at Battle School, however, Ender realises that not only must he master the skills of being in battle, but also the subtle psychological games in place to determine if he really could be the next Mazer Rackham. And eventually, if he succeeds, he is to lead the attack that could save Earth from the Formics.
It is a decidedly grim storyline, which asks difficult questions about free will, citizen surveillance and the ethics of war, among other things. Not to mention the fact that there is something inherently disturbing about the idea of sending young children off to war.
Therefore, director Gavin Hood deserves credit for keeping the mood of Ender’s Game sombre, despite all the visual razzle dazzle on display – and of that, there is certainly plenty to enjoy.
The realisation onscreen of the Battle School and the students’ training sequences onscreen is a visual treat, and the film’s climactic battle is both emotionally-resonant and breathtaking to watch.
The best parts of the movie involve Ender’s interactions with his fellow recruits, where the usual teenage friendships and competitions are transplanted into the regimented, military environment of Battle School.
Its young cast is one of the movie’s plus points, led by Butterfield who puts in another strong performance after Hugo in 2011.
Balancing between a steely instinct for battle and a sense of compassion, his Ender is both likeable and believable, and luckily escapes coming across as just another teen franchise hero.
Joining him are other young actors who put in equally good work, including Oscar nominees Abigail Breslin (as his sister Valentine whom he needs to leave behind at home) and Hailee Steinfeld (a fellow officer he befriends).
The adult cast, on the other hand, is serviceable but not particularly memorable – even Ford’s Colonel Graff comes across as predictably gruff but without much depth, and Academy Award-winner Viola Davis seems rather wasted in her role as Major Gwen Anderson, whose job is to observe the recruits from a psychological viewpoint. Ben Kingsley, however, manages to impress in a short but key role.
What is rather frustrating about Ender’s Game the movie is that we are given glimpses of greatness, and we are always left wanting just a little more than it gives us.
There is a lot of context and history to the events that are hinted at and never fully explored, with the movie throwing characters and events at us in rapid succession as it rushes along.
Even the character of Ender himself feels under-developed – we are constantly told how brilliant and talented he is, but the film doesn’t quite manage to show us instead.
The climax of the film does indeed pack a punch, but even that feels like a case of being given too little, too late. The last 20 minutes or so is when the heart of the story actually unfolds, and before we can begin to get into it, it’s over – nicely set up for a sequel, no less.