REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Stiff, surprisingly bloodless adaptation of a classic science fiction novel, maintaining a certain fidelity to details but neutering much of the source material’s key thematic materials.
SYNOPSIS: After aliens have attacked earth, Earth’s International Fleet recruits young Ender Wiggin to train for, and ultimately fight, the next battle.
PROS: Good supporting young cast….
CONS: …wasted by given absolutely nothing to do; surprisingly bland performances from the leads; hammy performances from the supporting cast members, especially seasoned veterans like Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley; routine screenplay that never fully engages; unremarkable direction.
Aliens have attacked—as they always do—but an incredible act of bravery from war hero Mazer Rackham, which appears to have resulted in his death, has caused them to flee earth. In preparation for the next battle, when it might come, Earth’s International Fleet seeks a new warrior among children in training. (Why children? We are never told.) One of these young recruits, so green they glow like radioactive plants, catches the eye of the gruff Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, channeling what little credibility he has left into a poor mélange of George C. Scott’s George S. Patton and R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman) after he beats a bully to a bloody pulp. This is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), and his journey from combat school to final military battle makes up writer and director Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
And an incredibly bloodless and uninteresting journey it is, for Ender, as he joins Graff’s team, marches through many of the same clichés as other cinematic recruits preparing for battle, from Joker and Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket to Winger and Ziskey in Ivan Reitman’s Stripes. There are the authority figures who test his limits, from International Fleet commander Graff to Battle School leader Bean (Moisés Arias), both so over-the-top in their actions that they often elicit titters instead of fear. There is the team Ender must assemble, from the beautiful Petra (Hailee Steinfeld, forced to mouth inane dialogue) to such ethnically diverse members as Bean (Aramis Knight) and Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy), none of whom demonstrate much personality or social class, making the rote discussions feel like a cross between High School Musical and Platoon. (Middle School Battle Musical, perhaps? Or Full Metal Onesie?) Ender and his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) hold deep, ponderous discussions of what makes a soldier and the need for compassion when leading one’s foes to their deaths, none of it terribly convincing. When Ender meets a seasoned combat veteran who has fought the aliens, their conversation bears the weight of Lessons That Must Be Learned…and that feel as slight and as thin as the conscription e-mail Ender must have received. And there is the final battle with the aliens, meant to demonstrate…well, what, exactly? Hood’s screenplay, often remarkably faithful to Card’s novel, never fully explains the trials and tribulations beyond incidences of bullying and confrontation. What great skills must Ender learn on his path from abused, misunderstood boy to stone-cold killer? Ender’s Game takes great pains to demonstrate that its hero already possesses the skills necessary to destroy his enemies and knows how best to use initiative, from a simple virtual reality test where, as a mouse, he must engage in a battle of wits with a giant (and, of course, wits lose) to battle simulations requiring rather rudimentary strategies. It makes his training all the more puzzling. If he already is good at it, then why show us his training?
If Wood’s basic plot elements never fully cohere, his execution of the science fiction backdrop and materials make even less sense. Early in the movie, the International Fleet expels Ender from training for beating a bully to a bloody pulp. The screenplay reveals that the government of this future Earth has enacted a “two-child” policy, and that Ender is a third, yet Hood’s screenplay makes little of this fact. Ender’s family lives in a suburban home right out of Spielberg’s E. T., or perhaps Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future Part II, untouched by the five decades–old alien invasion, and with little mention of where, exactly it is set. (In fact, aside from Ender’s family, people are generally absent from the entire production.) Surely the invasion took some toll on the planet, apart from routine news footage of people running in terror. But no, when Abigail and Ender take a raft ride on a lake surrounded by pines and mountains, there appear no remnants of destruction.
Wood’s direction, too, suffers from a sameness that informs so many movies of late. None of his shots demonstrate life or visual interest, and the scenes stretch the dramatics to such thin strands that its 114-minute running time feels much longer. His flat and uninvolving style sap awe even from what should be, for science fiction fans, the treat of seeing an alien world, as if Bob Ross decided to paint the landscape.
Most of Ender’s Game’s failure, though, must rest on the shoulders of Asa Butterfield. His expressive eyes reminiscent of Elijah Wood’s (though somewhat more lifelike), his countenance reminding one of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s (though perhaps toned down for the McDonald’s crowd), his Ender Wiggin never generates a real emotion; when he attempts to emote, it crashes like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it. Although he pays lip service to loving his enemies, his actions never evoke it. Although the International Fleet trains him to lead, he never actually draws on reserves of charisma to be a leader. With a more dynamic personality, audiences might have praised Ender, but Butterfield’s leaden presence make one want to bury him.