Based on the novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game is a tepid science fiction film from 2013. Director and screenwriter Gavin Hood doesn’t achieve any sense of wonder and the wobbly performances don’t help.
The Card novel was released in 1985 and became a significant hit, even earning a spot on the US Marine Corps reading list for its allegorical understanding of military efficacy. Watching the cinematic rendering of the book is like watching a dishevelled recruitment film, complete with a boy-conqueror incapable of doing wrong.
The movie picks up sometime in the future after Earth has been attacked by an army of bug-like Formics. The invasion was stopped after a valiant act and children have subsequently been pressed into training for a counterattack to ensure that the Formics don’t strike again.
Ender (Asa Butterfield) is one of the most gifted recruits and Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) is his biggest fan. The kid becomes a cadet and works through the program, showing tremendous ability along the way and earning the respect of his peers. Ultimately, this leads to simulations and tests that prove more and more challenging.
Ender’s Game is a pretty standard recruitment film in its showcasing of the title character working through the ranks. He earns his stripes by pure aptitude, which is good because Ender doesn’t have much personality to speak of apart from a contemptuous cockiness.
While it’s fine to have a science fiction opus lead with a jerk of a main character, Ender’s Game is robbed of consequence by the fact that Ender can do no wrong. He makes no mistakes along the way and is almost always the first person to ever do a certain thing. His cunning is silly and his knack for finding “outside the box” solutions is dull.
Nobody is better than Ender at anything, which makes other characters into background props. Even Ben Kingsley, who serves as the war hero Mazer Rackham, can only gaze through his Tā moko face tattoo as the little dipshit breezes past his every accomplishment.
There are other characters. Abigail Breslin plays Ender’s weirdly doting older sister Valentine, while Hailee Steinfeld is Ender’s pal Petra Arkanian. A gaggle of other students and authority figures flesh out the background and all of them play some kind of complementary role in support of the protagonist’s unflagging self-worth.
In terms of narrative, Ender’s Game doesn’t attempt much political or social commentary. It does, luckily, feature a late wrench designed to push Ender to a moment of emotional resonance and the tilt is the only portion of the film in which reality cashes in its proverbial chips.
But beyond the final turn, there’s little to crow about in Ender’s Game. Donald McAlpine’s cinematography has no grandeur and Hood’s direction is shallow, even with some opportunities for magic. His picture winds up a superficial sci-fi recruitment piece, entirely free of charm and challenge.