Ender’s Game, the classic 1985 sci-fi novel by the much despised Orson Scott Card, at last makes its way to the big screen after being stuck in development for what seems like forever. Surrounded by much controversy do to the aforementioned Card and his despicable beliefs, many people are opting to boycott the film altogether. I honestly do not support a boycott of any kind for the film. Card, despite being a complete monster of a human being, is not the only one making money off of Ender’s Game. This is a film, not the novel. If you boycott Ender’s Game, it’s not only Card that you’re boycotting, it’s everyone else involved. Look past Card to see the other, decent people whose careers are on the line. If the movie bombs it wouldn’t really effect the already excessively wealthy Card but it could potentially ruin the careers of others who worked on the film. Now that being said, you might as well not bother to watch Ender’s Game anyways because the movie is not very good. While very designed and exceptionally ambitious, Ender’s Game is dramatically inert and filled with numerous scenes that are both stale and awkward which drain any semblance of fun and energy from the proceedings. This, combined with the lack of any real stakes or tension leave Ender’s Game a chore to sit through. After this point we’re going to be getting into spoilers so be warned.
Decades after humanity was almost driven to extinction after an attack from a race of insect-like aliens called Formics, the nations of Earth have united to form the International Fleet. For vague, poorly explained reasons, the fleet has begun recruiting children and training them to command their soldiers during interstellar combat. A young, tactically gifted but emotionally cold boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is chosen by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to attend Battle School. There, Ender and his classmates hone their skills through elaborate war games. The film shifts the narrative focus of the story to remain entirely within the school, mostly by cutting out entire earthbound subplots from the novel. This has the unfortunate side effect of greatly lessening the scope and political charge of the original story. Ender eventually graduates to Command School where he and his accumulated friends take their “final exams” by commanding entire fleets during assaults on the enemy via virtual reality simulation. This comes to a head during the last test where Ender directs a suicidal attack on the home planet of the Formics wherein he loses the vast majority of his men to collateral damage but manages to completely eradicate the entire alien race. After their victory, the big twist reveals itself, there never was any simulation. Ender and his friends had been commanding real fleets the entire time. Ender really did let thousands of men die and he really did commit genocide against an entire species.
To say that Ender’s Game feels rushed would be a massive understatement. Writer and director Gavin Hood’s screenplay jams so many plot points into a film that is only around two hours. To cover such expansive material, Hood hastily runs through each of the major story beats with unrelenting efficiency. Even with a lot of the novel’s content cut out, scenes still come and go so quickly that there is almost no time to evolve or even establish any kind of tangible setting. Because of this the film feels empty and lifeless. This also leaves no time for any form of character development. None of our characters are expanded upon past purely basic traits and service to the story. Even our main character, Ender, is given nothing to show that he is any different then his classmates. Sure, he might be a little smarter then some of them but the only evidence of his superiority we are given is what other characters say about him. The entire second act, which is devoted to showing us Ender’s advanced commanding prowess, is paced so quickly and structured so amateurishly that we can’t really get a sense for why Ender is so talented outside of plot convenience. It comes across much less like Ender’s skills helped him earn is place in the school and more like his his something akin to the “chosen one.”
On a technical level, Ender’s Game is somewhat of a mixed bag. Though the special effects are at times jaw dropping, specifically during some impressive scenes of zero gravity laser tag and a few of the less action packed scenes, they do inadvertently undermine the big set piece moments near the end of the film. The space battle scenes in the third act of the film reach a level of complete CGI overload as the screen in each scene is cluttered with a big, ugly mess of cheap looking special effects. These scenes are undermined even further by Hood blatantly telling us what is happening instead of showing us. At numerous moments during the action, we get characters just speaking with each other about what is happening around them instead of just letting us watch the action unfold. This is because, as hard as he may try, Hood just does not have an eye for spectacle. He is never able to make any of the set pieces look nearly as awe-inspiring as they should.
The performances do not do much to save the film. Asa Butterfield, who has been great in other films, has a consistently flat affect throughout the film. His performance never shows any of the intelligence, wit, and emotional depths that Ender supposedly possess. Harrison Ford divulges in much scenery chewing with his showy, over-the-top performance resulting in a lot of unintentional hilarity whenever he happens to be onscreen. Other smaller roles like Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine, or Viola Davis as Major Anderson are all played competently but otherwise are not given much to do. Ben Kingsley as war hero and Ender’s teacher Mazer Rackham does reliably solid work though his characters role is remarkably under used to the point of being completely ineffectual. The real standout here is Haille Steinfeld as Ender’s classmate and friend, Petra Arkanian. Here, Steinfeld is able to effortlessly act circles around actors with decades more experience than herself.
Ender’s Game is a mess. Just one huge and expensive bore of a movie. In terms of writing and drama, it fails on just about every level due to the extremely hurried pacing. The visuals, though impressive at times, do not add up to anything worth while because of Hood’s inability to direct big set piece moments in a satisfying way. It is just plain dull and emotionally disconnected from any sort of reality. Ender’s Game is not worth your time or money. Skip it.