Considering this science-fiction blockbuster was based on a best-selling book and all-time genre favourite by Orson Scott Card, it’s amazing how little Ender’s Game seemed to trouble the box office when it came out last year, instead disappearing without trace in a mist of indifference from cinema goers, despite looking perfectly placed to benefit from the current mania of Young Adult dystopia thrillers such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. What was it, exactly, that put people off?
It might have been some highly provocative and controversial comments that Card himself made to the media about same-sex marriage just before the film’s release that saw him become something of a persona non grata in liberal arts circle and certainly made life difficult for the film’s PR team. I only know about that storm third- or fourth-hand and don’t know the details, so I’m going to avoid adding my ill-informed two cents’ worth about any of that; and I will also say that I have never read Card’s original novel so I’m not able to provide a compare-and-contrast between source and adaptation. This is going to be a basic ‘what it looked like on the screen to me with no baggage’ review.
And in many ways, what you get on screen is really very appealing. The production design and the visual effects are dazzling and actually rather beautiful (in a stark, militaristic fashion) and most of all they are done realistically and convincingly. Even in high definition, none of the CGI ever looks fake or the green screens ever stick out like sore thumbs as is so often the case. This is a film that cries out to be seen on this flawless, pin-sharp Blu-ray transfer and on a big screen to catch all the details.
The film is also to be commended on its performances, although to be honest there’s only really two starring roles here: Asa Butterfield plays Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, a young military cadet who is selected by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) for advanced level training because of his unique strategising talents, and who is ultimately placed in charge of Earth’s battle fleet against an alien species known as the Formics which tried and failed to invade our world 50 years ago and who are now amassing to make another attack within weeks.
Butterfield is excellent without reservation despite the essentially insular nature of the character he’s playing, which is just as well as the entire film really rests on his shoulders. However it’s no surprise he’s up to the job as even at the age of 16 he’s an experienced and proven leading actor, having played the main roles in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Martin Scorcese’s Hugo. Potentially more surprising is that this is one of Ford’s best outings of recent years too: while he’s still playing the same grizzled, gruff character that he seems to have cornered the market in over the last decade, he does so here with rather more passion and life than he has for many a film, and it’s great to see him back on form.
The rest of the cast are by comparison little more than supporting players: there’s Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld as a fellow trainee, Dracula’s Nonso Anozie as a drill sergeant and The Help’s Viola Davis as a military psychologist – all of them tremendous talents, but their characters here are firmly dictated by the role they play in Ender’s progression through his training and rarely have more than one note to play in the proceedings. There’s also a bizarre cameo by Ben Kingsley which is very late in the day and so brief and relatively pointless that it’s hard to work out why they thought the extra line item on the payroll accounts was worth it, other than to have his face on the movie poster.
Despite all the many positive things about Ender’s Game, we quickly lose momentum when it comes to talking about the script and plot. Essentially the film is structured around a series of challenges that are presented to Ender during his training – whether actual battle tactical problems played out in a zero-gravity sports setting, or more personal challenges such as being bullied or needing to find a way to win people over to follow his lead, or else the emotional demands made on him that see him threaten to quit the program. In each case the problem is laid out, Ender thinks about it a while, comes up with a plan and successfully executes it; the problem is resolved, the bully is overpowered, and Ender moves up to the next level to restart the cycle afresh. If that makes you think of working through the levels of a video game, then you’re spot on – and that’s doubtless an intentional conceit on the writers’ part.
The thing is, this rapidly gets rather repetitive: you know that Ender is going to succeed each time so there is little tension, and the problems are so baldly presented that they’re in truth no more interesting than any other hackneyed coming-of-age teen drama. It’s all played out against a military training background along the lines of Full Metal Jacket, but despite the SF trappings Ender’s Game doesn’t have nearly the drama or engagement of Stanley Kubrick’s classic, which at least transferred to the real life battleground for its final half whereas for Ender and his assembled group of misfits the film climaxes with what Graff calls their graduation training exercise before Ender is made commander-in-chief of the fleet, after which there is a (moderately effective) twist and a rushed coda to finish things off.
A 16-year-old as the admiral of a vast space army? This can’t help but bring some believability issues into the mix, but these are inherent in Card’s source novel and by no means insurmountable in a film either, given that a lot of YA blockbusters these days require children to act beyond their years and save the world in true Harry Potter wish-fulfilment fashion. Ironically, Butterfield – terrific as he is as an actor – slightly accentuates the problem here by looking so incredibly young. By appearance you could easily cast him five years younger, which unfortunately contributes to making the whole film look like some tame old-fashioned made-for-children science-fiction B-movie, and it’s this general impression that seems to have undermined Ender’s Game at the box office where even young heroes are supposed to look more like Robert Pattinson, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Henderson or Theo James than real teenagers.
This could have actually given rise to some interesting moral and ethical examination in Ender’s Game of what the Earth military forces are doing to their young children by training them to be deadly weapons from an early age, and the interplay between violent video games and real life behaviour. There’s certainly aspects of this early on especially through Viola Davis’ character, and the film makes a point of not supporting the clichéd fascist ‘win by any means possible and damn the cost’ approach that you might expect. Indeed, Ender explicitly rejects this notion when it is presented to him by Graff and says instead that the way we win is just as important, that knowing the enemy is crucial – and that to do so also means understanding, accepting and even coming to love them. It’s hard not to see overtones here of a critical analysis of US foreign and defence policy in the Middle East over the last decade (notably, one of Ender’s group of friends is a Muslim boy.)
So the film certainly has an inclination to something deeper and more profound, but this sort of internal psychological sophistication is hard for any film to do successfully and especially a film intended for teenagers that is selling itself more on action, thrills, spectacle and visual FX. In the end the profundity gets dialled down in the mix and there’s oddly nothing to replace it on the screen, leaving a good-looking, well-acted but oddly hollow and unengaging end result on the screen that try as I did I simply couldn’t find any way to really feel anything for, either good or bad. While it’s true that some of this coldness comes from the Earth military’s own detached approach to its cannon fodder cadets, there’s no excuse for the film to end up with such a chilly and off-putting mise-en-scène of its own as well. When we pay up to go and see a movie, we obviously hope and want it to be really good; but we’ll also take a guilty pleasure, so flawed or bad in some way that it becomes tremendously fun instead. What’s harder to accept is a film that simply exists but which ends up making virtually no lasting impression, instead falling away from the mind the minute that the end credits start to roll.
On the plus side, if you do buy the Blu-ray (which comes with two audio commentaries from the director Gavin Hood and producers Gigi Pritzker and Roberto Orci which reveal some of the production difficulties that compromised the filmmakers’ original intentions, and an hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes featurettes and deleted/extended scenes) then at least this lack of impact means you’ll be able to watch it anew in a year’s time and marvel all over again at the visuals and Butterfield’s performance while scarcely being troubled by any significant feelings of déjà vu that aren’t already built into the film’s video game level structure.