Adapted from Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name, Ender’s Game is set 50 years after an alien attack from the ant-like Formics, in which humanity barely survived. Now the International Fleet prepare for a future invasion by training the best child recruits. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, Hugo, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas) is a shy introvert who is hand-picked for this scheme by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, Star Wars, Indiana Jones) in order to train to become the Commander of the fleet.
The film is visually stunning, and this is easily one of its strongest selling points. The hugely orchestrated CGI battles are amazing, with vast amounts of action and spaceships filling the screen and bombarding the audience. But it also handles the small scale effects well, with another highlight being the immersive zero-gravity Battle Room, a strategic training facility that is basically where the recruits play “space laser tag”, and I’m quite surprised that it wasn’t converted to 3D, since it would have been more suitable than some of the most recent 3D films.
Ender’s Game also examines the small-scale drama as well, to mixed results. Asa Butterfield easily gives the films best performance, as a nuanced presentation of repressed anger and strategic brilliance. His interactions with Graff result in him being ostracised by his comrades and elevated as a genius, forcing him to earn his leadership. Harrison Ford’s Graff is a typical gruff military archetype, giving the audience the impression that he sees the children as no more than tools to win the war. It works but wasn’t nearly as developed as it could be, lacking the humanity needed to add the extra gravitas.
But there were some odd casting decisions, such as Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3, The Dictator) as a war hero, putting on a weird New Zealand accent. Much like another recent role of his, it went a completely different direction to what I thought it would, and had nowhere near enough screen time. Nonso Anozie (Game of Thrones) really hammed it up as drill sergeant Dap, which felt like a cheesy Brian Blessed, instead of what could have been intimidating in the hands of someone like Idris Elba. Apart from Butterfield, the quality of the child acting ranged from mediocre to poor. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Romeo and Juliet) was unremarkable, but at least she wasn’t as bad as Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island, Zombieland) who managed to reach Hayden Christensen levels of irritation.
The plot is ambitious, and is full of deeply philosophical themes. At first, I thought it was just a formulaic story of a young genius destined to be amazing at a Command and Conquer-style simulator, but there was one twist moment that just took my breath away. However, at times, Ender’s Game suffers from its own ambition, like with the half-baked sub-plot involved with a weird psychic computer game.
Ender’s Game is an enjoyable enough watch, but doesn’t live up to its full potential. It is a visual spectacle, with Asa Butterfield giving a stand-out performance, but the other actors don’t pull their weight. Some aspects of the story didn’t really work, but it was worth it for an outstanding ending that left me thinking about the value of life and whether the ends justify the means.