There is more than a little controversy around Ender’s Game, a big budget adaptation of Orson Scott Card‘s landmark science fiction novel. The biggest hubbub has been about the writer’s personal beliefs and prejudices, which is a shame, because the story itself is rich with controversial, challenging and fascinating material on its own, and that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.
Regrettably, much of that challenging material is also lost on the makers of Ender’s Game, who drown the story’s juiciest bits with a generic, anemic approach.
The premise is both provocative, culturally subversive and absolutely brilliant; in order to fight off an invading fleet of aliens, humanity has decided to train kids, not adults, as high-tech soldiers, due to their advanced learning aptitude and easier moral malleability.
And for once, the actual kids/teen part of a Hollywood film about teenagers is its strongest one. Asa Butterfield plays the eponymous Ender with absolute conviction and conveys his moral dilemmas and brutal circumstances without missing a beat throughout. Most of the other teens follow suit, most notably Hailee Steinfeld and Moises Arias, who both turn potentially clichéd plot devices into empathetic three-dimensional characters.
Harrison Ford and Viola Davis play the only heavily featured adults, and are largely typecast, with Ford employing Growl Factor 300 throughout his entire performance and Davis playing Token Motherly Sympathetic Character #3,509 in her career, while Sir Ben Kingsley has a glorified cameo as Mazer Rackham, Certified Aging War Hero(TM). They do these things very well, being who they are, but don’t have to stretch their acting muscles for a second.
Special highlights are the tricky zero-gravity practice sequences and the troop dynamic in the camp, where the violence is refreshingly brutal and the relationships blissfully void of contrived sentimentalism. There’s not a hint of forced teen romance and that must be commended.
Ender’s Game relies heavily on CGI and while it’s technically excellent, there is a lack of necessary vivacity to it, which renders the film’s biggest battle sequences disappointingly flat and procedural.
The film’s biggest flaw lies in the narrative approach, both through the script adaptation, which seems intent on explaining every little thing as if the audience needs a simultaneous Cliff’s Notes narration along with actually watching the damn thing unfolding. The voice-over narration panders to the most idiotic of viewers, which is such a shame, because the story is Matrix-level of insane, and with stories like that you want to figure things out for yourself.
This over-exposed narrative leads to the viewer being able to predict the final twist well ahead, but without being able to feel smart about it. It also undermines the moral ambiguities of the story, mainly the issues of training children to kill and the politics of war at large, an element that could easily have made the film an instant classic if correctly executed.
No such luck here, unfortunately.
The music by Steve Jablonsky, who is well versed in futuristic sci-fi, having recently scored the Transformers films, Battleship and the Gears of War video games, fluctuates between fittingly epic and prompting emotions, but stays largely effective through the important parts of the film.
Final Verdict: The much-debated Ender’s Game shows hints of a timeless classic somewhere inside an over-simplified and patronising Hollywood product. Moments of brilliance, and a strong central performance by Asa Butterfield are undermined by pandering to the audience, so the result is muddled, and ultimately forgettable.