Review: Ender's Game (2013)

I have never read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card but I was thrilled by the movie. There’s a classical charm to its filmmaking and its themes are more troublesome than most stories aimed at young adults. It may lack the visceral impact of something like The Hunger Games, with kids killing kids, but the implications of the ending are much more disturbing than that post-apocalyptic phenomenon. Gavin Hood, the man who helmed the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine, directs the film and he proves to be a different director here: more patient, more focused on the characters than the action.

The film would not work if Asa Butterfield did not play Ender Wiggin, the genius tactician in International Fleet. Known for his strategic thinking and his ruthlessness, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) recruits Ender for the prestigious Battle School. Fifty years before the events of the film, an alien species named the Formics attacked Earth and almost destroyed humanity. If it weren’t for a brilliant commander named Mazer Rackham, humanity would have lost. The purpose of Battle School is to train another commander of Rackham’s prowess, so that when the Formics challenge humanity again, humanity will be ready to defeat them.

A substantial portion of the film focuses on Ender navigating the everyday difficulties of Battle School, so in a sense Ender’s Game is a high school film. Off the bat Graff positions Ender as the outsider so as to test his abilities and see how he reacts to ostracism. On the flight to battle school he embarrasses the other cadets by calling Ender the only smart person among them. Graff wants to isolate and challenge Ender so as to make Ender a better commander. Many of the other recruits are hostile towards Ender, especially Bonzo, played by Moises Arias from The Kings of Summer. Bonzo is a bitter little soldier, and he theoretically provides some interesting conflict for Ender, but casting Arias undoes the effect of the character. Arias is physically unintimidating and unconvincing in his anger. You never fear for Ender when Bonzo confronts him in the locker room. Luckily, Bonzo is the film’s only instance of miscasting.

Asa Butterfield, the actor best known for playing the title character of Hugo, is an exceptional young actor, and he’s perfect for Ender. He’s scrawny, but you believe that he could be ruthless in a fight. Butterfield has a more palpable sense of melancholy and intelligence than any other young actor, which lends weight to Ender’s battlefield prowess and the emotional baggage he carries. His pale blue eyes are piercing, and in the film’s emotional moments of revelation, Butterfield doesn’t overplay the scene. He has the emotional confidence of a more mature actor. He’s marvelous.

Ender’s Game also boasts some impressive action that seems atypical for a Hollywood blockbuster. The zero-g training fights in Battle School are admirably focused on strategy. After a summer where both the best (Man of Steel, Pacific Rim) and the worst (Iron Man 3, World War Z) blockbusters were full of apocalyptic destruction and extending sequences of smashing and bashing CGI, Ender’s Game is focused. The war simulations are tactical and more about an intelligent series of moves and countermoves that brute force. For anyone with an affinity for video games or strategy board games, the battles in Ender’s Game are even more fascinating as they play upon the gamer’s instincts for improvisation and reflex. Hood isn’t interested in filming Ender’s Game like the most other action films, all shaky camera and fast cuts. In fact, there’s nothing gritty at all about the film. It’s fluid filmmaking and much like the bug-like Formic vessels, the components fit together to form the semblance of an organic whole. He chooses his shots carefully. When Ender is in the battle simulation room standing on a circular riser over the rest of his team, commanding them in their battle moves, he is a composer above his orchestra. Hood composes his battle scenes much like Ender gives his orders.

Hood, who also adapted the film, gives it an impressive pace for something not driven by action, but that pace becomes a problem during the climax. The pace causes the film to race past the devastating revelation of the climax, not allowing Ender his necessary emotional breakdown and the audience to understand the implications of what the film is saying. It’s admirable that the film doesn’t hammer home the message of Ender’s actions, but it could have offered another scene of respite before moving onto the next plot point. 

As well, because the pace is so quick, when the climax comes, Hood tips his hat that the actions have to be more than they initially appear to be. Anyone familiar with the structure of this kind of storytelling will understand that at this moment in the film, the climax has to occur. Being so structured robs Ender’s Game of maximum impact.

The ending of Ender’s Game is disturbing on a variety of levels. But despite the film’s sequel-bait code and occasional stumble, Ender’s Game is a blockbuster of intelligence and ideas over brawn and style. It may be meticulously designed and sleek like any good sci-fi film, but it’s the themes behind the film that give it its heft.

7 out of 10

Directed by Gavin Hood; written by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card; starring Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley.

This article was originally published on The Rooster, Spareparts’ now-defunct community culture blog.