2013, 114mins, 12
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer (s): Gavin Hood, Scott Orson Card (1985 novel Ender's Game)
Cast includes: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley
UK Release Date: 25th October 2013
With “Gravity” currently dominating the American Box-Office, it’s easy to forget that 2013 hasn't been a stellar year for big budget sci-fi. “Oblivion”, “After Earth” and “Elysium” all comfortably undershot financial expectation (the latter two also underwhelming artistically) during the lucrative summer months, leaving “Ender’s Game” in a precarious position for a more modest Autumnal debut. Adapted from a 1985 text by controversial author Orson Scott Card (due to inflammatory remarks aimed at the LGBT community), “Ender’s Game” imagines itself as a strange mixture of “Platoon”, “Starship Troopers” and “The Hunger Games”, but despite a noble undercurrent of intriguing subtext the picture stumbles under a treacly layer of dubious film-making. Maybe it’s the directorial input of Gavin Hood (last seen battling against his employers with 2009’s little loved “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) or just a misappropriation of the material by the script (also Hood’s responsibility), but “Ender’s Game” gratingly fails to connect on a dramatic or aesthetic level. I suspect distributors Summit Entertainment have the next “After Earth” on their hands, as opposed to the “Twilight” replacement they've been struggling to unearth for the last 12-months.
In the past Earth was ravaged by alien attackers, but due to the efforts of a heroic individual the threat was abated. Now the Commanders of the human race train and assess children, grooming them as leaders, should the threat of intergalactic warfare resurface. Ender (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”) has been brought to the attention of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford); the latter convinced the teen has the steely attitude and tactical instincts required for militaristic brilliance. Recruiting Ender into an intense training facility, Graff tests the boy with obstacles both physical and cerebral, pitting him in violent encounters against other gifted youngsters. As D-Day grows closer, it becomes apparent that Ender will play a key role in Earth’s offensive strategy; something that pressures the boy’s ever depleting conscience.
“Ender’s Game” isn't without lofty ideas or impactful imagery, but these positives are only mild seasoning on an otherwise unsatisfactory dish. The movie deals with the decimation of innocence, the muddy ethics of war and the desensitization of modern youth culture quite efficiently, although its musings lack the depth required to forgive a multitude of pratfalls. I respect Hood for maintaining some connection with the novel’s more nihilistic tonality (the feature isn’t entirely white-washed despite a PG sensibility), but the uneven standard of performance and weak storytelling are debilitating. Asa Butterfield nails Ender’s icy-stare and sporadic internal conflicts, but around him seasoned veterans coast (disappointingly Ford falls into this category), with the younger thespians failing to handle the weight of basic performative demands. Hailee Steinfeld – who was so good in the Coens’ “True Grit” – is watery as a potential point of pubescent connection for Ender; denied to him as a result of the bloody task at hand.
The CGI is indicative of a movie costing over $100 million, but the sets and costuming are distractingly cheap in spots, removing some of the grandiose scale Hood is gunning for. Action sequences are shot competently and with tidy editorial control, but there’s a lack of tension, the script never imbuing the laser-tag style battles or hulking battleship simulations with any semblance of higher purpose. Maybe that’s the point, the movie clearly wants to critique popular culture’s trivialisation of mass violence, but that alone doesn’t render the carnage exciting. We’re given no reason to care; the film-makers carelessly ignoring stakes and characterization in favour of obvious commentary and digital prowess. I admire “Ender’s Game” for its ambition on this front (even if the success is limited), but for a wannabe blockbuster such ignorance toward the current genre audience’s hunger for engaging action will dent its box-office allure. It also makes large swathes of “Ender’s Game” rather boring and soulless.
Stylistically “Ender’s Game” doesn't have many defining marks, reducing the narrative to a glorified montage of sorts. Characters are hurtled from one challenge to another with little detail applied to the emotional rigour required, whilst call-backs to Ender’s family on earth are so perfunctory and thinly fleshed out they border on offensive. It would be unsurprising to find a lengthier cut appear on Blu-Ray, so flimsy are the leaps that fuel the sub-par script. Steve Jablonsky’s rousing musical score allows individual moments some superficial importance, but when distilled, it is apparent Hood’s grasp of the material is too jerky for maximum viewer immersion.
The final act musters a single intensely powerful scene (Ford springing to life) but its ultimate resolution is distractingly scrappy and unfocused. In fact the conclusion borders on incoherent, even going as far to steal away the significance of Ender’s eventual part in Graff’s master plan. Still, it paves the way for a sequel, which at the time probably seemed like a chief concern for greedy executives. Yet having seen the final product, I’m doubtful the demand for an “Ender’s Game” follow-up will justify such corporate mentality.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013