Film Review – Ender’s Game
I’ve never read Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, and after watching writer/director Gavin Hood’s film adaptation, I’m not that much more interested in it. This is a dreary, sluggishly paced story that takes itself way too seriously. There are interesting ideas afloat, which I’m sure are explored in finer detail in the book, but they are only skimmed across here. What we have is a sci-fi thriller sorely lacking in the “thrill” department. What it does have, however, are plenty of people scowling, frowning, and acting intense to the fifth degree. I wanted to put my arm around each character and tell them it’s okay to crack a smile sometimes. Maybe that’s what the filmmakers were going for: to have a very straightforward, businesslike approach. If that’s the case, then it’s unfortunate. If you can’t have a little bit of fun in space, then what’s the point of anything?
Asa Butterfield plays the main character, Ender Wiggin, with two facial expressions: serious and more serious. Ender has grown up in a volatile future, where human civilization is under threat by invaders. Years ago, an alien race known as Formics savagely attacked Earth. Humanity was able to ward them off, but at great loss. To prevent the devastation from happening again, a Battle School was created to train soldiers with the sole purpose of fighting the Formics. Kids in their early teens are chosen, then molded through tough militarization and influential propaganda. Being picked to train is a right of passage for these young people, even though they’re made to be child soldiers. Here is one of the more interesting elements at play: the morality of kids participating in the military. But we never delve deeply into that discussion. Instead, the narrative simply focuses on the trainees as they move up in the ranks.
The school is run by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and his subordinate, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). Graff is a tough old man who will go to great lengths to find the perfect soldier. Graff sees a lot of promise in Ender, and throws a ton of obstacles in his way to see how he’ll react. This includes singling him out, to the ire of his fellow trainees. Harrison Ford is one of the great movie stars of his generation, with an endless amount of charisma. It’s too bad his character is as flat and uninteresting as can be. Graff is the stereotypical hard-ass military man, and that’s all there is to him. Ford does his best to bring life to his character, but his effort doesn’t hide the fact that it’s one-dimensional. The same can be said about Davis’s character. At least Davis’s performance gives Anderson a bit of compassion, but it goes to waste because we know so little of her.
All the trainees are highly intelligent and capable kids. They are the best of the best, and can adapt and strategize military maneuvers with rapid ease. Their practice facility is a zero gravity chamber, where they play games involving stun guns which can paralyze a participant’s body armor when hit. Imagine a combination of quidditch from Harry Potter and the games in Tron: Legacy (2010) and you’d be getting close. All the simulations are categorized as “games,” as though the trainees are taking part in recreational activities. How they are able to act at such a high level at their age is a mystery. Some of them are too young to drive a car, yet somehow we’re supposed to believe they can command a powerful military fleet? They train, and train, and train, and afterwards they train some more. The majority of the film involves Ender either participating in a training exercise, or talking about a training exercise. Whatever momentum is built dissipates rapidly as we watch the trainees enter the practice facility an endless number of times. The repetitiveness kills whatever anticipation there is, so much so that a scene not involving some type of training comes as a relief.
When we finally get to see the preparation put into use, it’s done in a backhanded way, ultimately feeling like a cop-out. Most of Ender’s Game can be described as such. It promises to go in a certain direction, but in the third act veers off the rails with plot twists that don’t feel organic, or even sensible. It’s a film that tries so hard to be something important but never gets there. Rather, it buries itself under its own themes and ends up becoming insufferable. There is no levity off of which to balance; everyone is so stern I couldn’t connect with any of them. Not at any point was I riveted; at no time did it make me want to see what happens next. I’ve heard the source material was well received, and spawned a number of sequels. Perhaps it would be best to leave the rest of this story on the page instead of the big screen.