Packed with a staunch anti-war sentiment and anti-bullying message in a slick looking science-fiction package, Ender’s Game has a lot to say, but little of it is especially entertaining.
In 2086, Earth is attacked by an alien race known as the Formics. The war results in catastrophic loss of life and Earth’s International Fleet braces for the next attack. Feeling that their more malleable minds can adapt and adjust to war scenarios, the IF recruits children to be at the forefront of the battle. The children train on video game simulators and engage in zero gravity laser tag style competitions, which seems even more timely than when Orson Scott Card originally wrote his 1985 novel.
Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis, Prisoners) observe the war games with hopes of sending the standouts to deep space to prevent the next Formics’ invasion. Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) joins the evaluation process later on if for no other reason than to show off an elaborate face tattoo that would make Mike Tyson jealous.
The top prospect is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy, but brilliant boy who can’t master social interaction as easily as he does the game scenarios.
Ender’s not prone to violence like his older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) or as overly compassionate as his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin, The Call). He’s the more focused one — able to devise a strategy to overcome any odd opponent. It’s a trait Ender values when it doesn’t terrify him.
Graff is convinced Ender can save the planet and positions him in a leadership role, earning Ender the intense dislike of some of his fellow recruits. Fortunately, he’s got some allies including likely love interest Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld).
The film is not even two hours long despite feeling like three hours — never a good sign — and that’s mainly because not a whole heck of a lot is happening.
Imagine watching Star Wars and instead of setting up all the characters that would come together to help overthrow the Empire, the film simply focused on Luke Skywalker at Rebellion Academy training how to blow up the Death Star. Or if you watched The Matrix and the film didn’t deviate much from Neo’s training to learn if he was in fact ‘The One.’ That’s what we have here.
Director/Screenwriter Gavin Hood has some fascinating topics and ideas to work with in adapting Card’s novel. Intriguing subplots like families typically being limited to two children, Peter’s psychotic behavior and Ender’s seemingly strained relationship with his parents immediately come to mind, but are underdeveloped in favor of playing out the simulations and the cliche bully subplots. It’s ironic considering the film’s underlining message is conflicts aren’t won with violence, but with character and how little is actually spent on exploring the characters.
The cast does what little they can with the material. Butterfield, in particular, shines even against heavyweights like Ford and Kingsley. Steinfeld, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee is frustratingly relegated to sidekick duty.
Hood does wring out some enthusiasm for the game scenarios with the zero gravity ‘fight’ scenes. It’s not shattering new ground like Gravity, but the simulations look fun. The set designs are largely restricted to spaceships with pulsating lights, but you certainly get that futuristic feel.
For the prolonged setup, it soon becomes clear there won’t be a satisfying payoff for the film making Ender’s Game feel less like a complete standalone, but instead a prolonged prologue to a better, more fully realized effort.
Disappointingly, this hasn’t been a good year for original science-fiction material. Elysium and Oblivion struggled even with A-list stars Matt Damon and Tom Cruise respectively while Pacific Rim failed to excite audiences even with its giant robots vs. giant monsters premise. Ender’s unfortunately doesn’t break that trend.
There’s more of Card’s novels to adapt, but Ender’s starts and wraps things on a pretty flat note. It hardly leaves you wanting more out of this potential franchise thanks to its non-starter opening installment.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Jr., SMPSP/Summit Entertainment