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Ender's Game

D: Gavin Hood / 114m

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Nonso Anozie

Adapted from Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name, Ender’s Game places us at a time in the future when Earth has been attacked by an alien race called the Formics. Having repelled them but with the threat of their return looming, an International Force has been formed to address the issue and prepare for the Formics return.  Believing that children with the best tactical minds will provide the best possible offence agains the Formics, a Battle School has been set up in orbit around Earth.  Taking part is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Butterfield).  Watched over by Colonel Graff (Ford), Ender shows promise but is weighed down by feelings of guilt and self-doubt brought on by being a “third”; his older brother and sister have both attended the training programme but failed to make the grade.  But Graff fast-tracks his progress, seeing in Ender’s tough, unwavering approach to dealing with combat situations the key to defeating the Formics.

At Command School, on the edge of the Formic territory, Ender confirms Graff’s opinion of his abilities and under the tutelage of war hero Mazer Rackham (Kingsley).  Ender takes part in several simulated attacks but doesn’t always come out on top.  With one last simulation left in which to prove himself, Ender has to use all his skills to defeat Rackham’s programme.

With Card’s novel having gained so much prestige over the years, and with Card himself regarding it as unfilmable for so long, his involvement in this production is baffling.  Under Hood’s guidance, Ender’s Game is something of a disappointment, dragged down as it is by flaccid pacing and a script that lacks tension throughout.  The opening sequence, with its Formic attack looking too much like an outtake from Independence Day (1996), lacks the level of excitement required to make the Formic threat a viable one for the audience.  It’s a short sequence and they’re defeated almost straight away, so where’s the threat that everyone’s so worried about?

Ender's Game - scene

The rest of the movie never really resolves this issue, or makes the Formics anything other than a glorified boogeyman, and while this later proves to be the point, the fact that there’s so little actual “threat” undermines the movie and takes away a lot of the intended drama.  As it is, we’re left with war simulations set in zero gravity, Graff insisting Ender is the “one” at every turn, a video game (with some worryingly Nineties graphics) that may or may not be reflecting Ender’s inner emotional turmoil, and an increasing sense that the movie is more padding than substance.  It all looks good, and the zero gravity sequences are well-staged but as there’s no doubt that Ender will triumph each time, even those sequences fail to excite as much as they should.

Hood’s adaptation ultimately undermines the cast and gives them little to do except spout clumsy lines of dialogue, or struggle to find an emotional through-line.  Ford, in particular, is saddled with a character so badly written he’s a hair’s-breadth away from being one-dimensional.  Secondary characters such as Viola Davis’s Major Anderson and Ender’s sister, Valentine (Breslin) fare even less well, given only limited screen time and even less opportunity to make an impression or a valuable contribution to the  plot.  But it’s Ender himself who comes off worst, portrayed by Butterfield as a martinet in short pants, a little Napoleon who has no empathy for anyone but Valentine, and whose attempts at concern for others comes off as stilted and unconvincing.  Faced with a leading character that the audience has trouble identifying with, Ender’s Game fails to engage on an emotional level, and the movie is reduced to a series of video game-style simulations and war games that are muddled in execution and less than thrilling.

Given that Card’s novel came under fire for its violence, and this adaptation strays away from any graphic depictions, there’s still the underlying theme of genocide propping up the plot.  Poorly handled at the movie’s conclusion, this theme would have added more depth to proceedings if it had been brought more to the fore, and much earlier on.  Instead, we have a movie that is more family-oriented and possessed of much less bite.

Rating: 4/10 – not a complete disaster but close enough as to make very little difference; adaptations of sci-fi classics rarely turn out well and Ender’s Game does nothing to disprove the theory.