Review: Ender’s Game (2013)

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Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Gavin Hood
Based on Ender’s Game, a novel by Orson Scott Card
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Aramis Knight, Viola Davis & Moisés Arias
Runtime: 114 min // Certificate: 12a

One of the biggest box-office disappointments of last year, Ender’s Game is just another in the now infinite line of “youth fiction” novels that are being adapted for the big screen. The film is set in the near future, in the aftermath of a war with an alien race known as the “Formics”, who look a bit like oversized bugs. Earth won the war but the Formic threat remains, so children are recruited to participate in an intense program of military training to ascertain who will be the soldiers of tomorrow. Colonel Graff (Ford), the man in charge of the program, is on the look-out for those special few children who demonstrate the perfect skills – disobedience, a level of ruthlessness and an understanding of strategy – to join his Battle School, where they will train to become the ultimate warriors. He puts his faith in Ender Wiggin (Butterfield), a shy young boy who demonstrates all of the right skills in abundance, and ultimately puts him in charge of the team that will help take on what remains of the Formic army.

If you’re thinking “Starship Troopers for kids”, you aren’t far wrong. It is a film that attempts (mostly unsuccessfully) to explore the influence of the military on children, the use of propaganda and whether or not affirmative action is ever justified. It is – as the title suggests – a game, so there’s never a sense of danger or peril to the proceedings, a problem that is further heightened by Ender’s inability to do anything wrong. Though I imagine this is the intention, he comes across as obnoxious, cold and unnecessarily calculated. He passes from challenge A to challenge B to challenge C without any difficulty, making his adventure almost impossible to invest in.

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There are, however, some decent ideas littered through this story, which are driven by its rather bleak undertones. It’s a film that seems somewhat confused as to whether it is pacifist or militaristic, resulting in an uncomfortable compromise between the two extremes, yet the basic concept is solid. I’m not sure that enough attention is given to how the children’s personalities – how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking and so on – so it’s sometimes difficult to place what’s happening into a human context, but when you sit back and assess what you’re being asked to consider, you begin to realise that the film is nowhere near as shallow as it might first appear.

In some sense it reminds me of The Hunger Games in that it feels a bit tame yet still manages to explore the morality of forcing children to fight in a far subtler manner than I was expecting. Though there isn’t anything immediately dystopian about it (after all, humans won the war) it explores the same themes that you might expect from a near-future / post-apocalyptic film, which gives it some much needed depth. Fair enough, it isn’t exactly rich in politics or metaphor but it sometimes explores concepts that might surprise you, particularly for a children’s film. There are at least two occasions when it delves into some dark territory indeed, and it is in these moments that the film shows much of the promise that it never truly delivers.

Most of the film’s problems rest on the shoulders of its director / writer Gavin Hood, who feels a bit like the Chris Columbus of the Ender universe (if that’s what it’s called…) He lacks the visual flair to make this unique tale come to life and, as such, it all feels a bit bland. For a film about children on the verge of war with an alien race, it’s remarkable just how forgettable most of it is. Sure, there were a few set-pieces that caught my attention but these were few and far between. The direction, the cinematography and Hood’s interpretation of the material all feel far too safe, which means that what could have been a fresh and exciting youth fiction adaptation is, instead, a rather monochrome affair. Furthermore, for someone who has never read – and has no intention of reading – the source material, there is a distinct lack of necessary exposition. I have no idea why children are chosen to fight, I’m oblivious to the significance of Ender being a third child and I’m totally confused by the conflict between Ender and his brother. They might be minor details, but it is simple character / plot development like this that can make or break a film.

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In terms of the performances, Harrison Ford plays Harrison Ford to the best of his ability – which is something I can always get on board with – though after The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Hugo this does feel like a bit of a step backwards for Asa Butterfield, even though his performance is pretty solid. The rest of the cast are decent enough which, for a film full of children, is actually pretty amazing… though Ben Kingsley’s performance is laughably bad, not to mention insulting. None of the characters are what you might call “engaging”, though Ender is the only one I actively disliked; although that in itself is pretty damning. No, the problem with them is that they’re all terribly underdeveloped. Graff is your generic, rough-and-ready military man who ain’t got no time for feelings or emotions, while Petra (Steinfeld) is just a dull love interest with no personality. It’s difficult to care about the future of the human race when the characters aren’t actually recognisably human.

I think the reason I didn’t hate Ender’s Game is that I went in to it knowing that I wasn’t a member of its target audience and, as such, whatever it got right took me by surprise. Like so much “youth fiction” it is far from bad, it’s just not all that appealing. There are some decent ideas running through its veins but they’re often belittled by a script that focuses too much on irrelevant details and not enough on the personalities of its characters or the consequences of their actions. Ten years ago I might well have loved this film; alas, I’m just far too cynical for it now. Nevertheless, if it gets children to think about war in a non-Call of Duty way then I guess it can’t be all bad.

Come on though Asa; you’re a great actor with a great future ahead. Don’t resort to nonsense like this just to get yourself seen…