Film Review: ‘Ender’s Game’

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Like “The Hunger Games,” this Orson Scott Card adaptation peddles the unseemly idea of watching kids thrust into life-and-death situations, but also takes responsibility for their actions.

An anti-bullying allegory writ on the largest possible scale, “Ender’s Game” frames an interstellar battle between mankind and pushy ant-like aliens, called Formics, in which Earth’s fate hinges on a tiny group of military cadets, most of whom haven’t even hit puberty yet. At face value, the film presents an electrifying star-wars scenario — that rare case where an epic space battle transpires entirely within the span of two hours — while at the same time managing to deliver a higher pedagogical message about tolerance, empathy and coping under pressure. Against considerable odds, this risky-sounding Orson Scott Card adaptation actually works, as director Gavin Hood pulls off the sort of teen-targeted franchise starter Summit was hoping for.

Actually, considering that the distrib behind “The Twilight Saga” was counting on “Ender’s Game” to supply the company’s next YA powerhouse, perhaps those hopes run a wee bit high (the “Twilight” pics have collectively earned $3.3 billion in global B.O.), though all involved seem to have adjusted their expectations in recent months, between rumors of production woes and a publicity nightmare involving Card’s anti-gay statements. Sequels seem less certain than they once did for this expensive, effects-heavy feature, though Hood has more than salvaged the initial assignment, turning in an impressive, thought-provoking astro-adventure that benefits from the biggest screen available (Imax, where possible).

Card’s novel assumes a situation where, in the wake of a massive Formic attack, the world’s children are somehow best suited to protect their planet from an imminent second strike. The most promising young recruits train on elaborate videogame-like simulators while a pair of officers — Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) — monitor their techniques in search of “the One,” a child with the strategic instincts to save his species. The leading candidate is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a runt-like outsider whose behavior toward his aggressive classmates reveals his true potential.

Like “The Hunger Games,” the pic peddles the unseemly idea of watching kids thrust into life-and-death situations. Though they’re not instructed to kill one another, these moppets’ prime directive should also give parents pause, raising the stakes from hand-to-hand combat to the potential genocide of an unfamiliar race. Fortunately, Hood (who also penned the adaptation) factors these weighty themes into the story without making them the primary focus. Between the officers, Graff’s agenda is more complicated than he lets on, while Anderson represents the voice of reason, remarking, “It used to be a war crime to recruit anyone under the age of 15.” But these are not soldiers, per se, but highly skilled Junior ROTC types, training on virtual conflict scenarios.

Butterfield — who has grown into his big blue eyes, if not the rest of his body, since “Hugo” — makes ideal casting for Ender: He’s scrawny and physically unimposing, yet there’s an intensity to his stare that suggests he might indeed be masking deeper (or darker) gifts. It’s nothing so powerful as the Force, or Neo’s Matrix-bending abilities, though “Ender’s Game” dedicates nearly its entire run time to Battle School, where our hero and his fellow recruits practice various drills, including an anti-gravity game (the rules of which aren’t terribly clear) that looks like the next best thing to Quidditch.

Despite the obvious “be all you can be” subtext, “Ender’s Game” manages to make these training sequences compelling without veering into pro-military propaganda, doing so by focusing on the interpersonal dynamics between the various squad members. Though Card may have publicly revealed his own prejudices, the casting department has assembled a wonderfully diverse group of actors — male and female, they come in all colors, shapes and sizes — to serve alongside Ender, including not only Latino best friend Bean (Aramis Knight) but also a fresh set of rivals and bullies, led by the odd-looking Bonzo (“Hannah Montana’s” Moises Arias). Generally speaking, these aren’t your typical Teen Nick selects; instead, the pic counts two teen Oscar nominees (Hailee Steinfeld as squad-mate Petra and Abigail Breslin as his sister Valentine) among its solid young ensemble.

So much youthful energy onscreen makes Ford seem tired and weary by comparison. Still, it’s a treat to discover Han Solo all buttoned up and back to do more space battle — not that anyone here is quite as lively or memorable as the characters B-movie fans discovered in “Star Wars” three dozen years ago. Butterfield’s “Hugo” co-star Ben Kingsley also pops up for a late cameo, sporting an Australian accent and an elaborate Maori tribal tattoo across his entire face (a poor man’s Darth Maul, perhaps?). It might not seem fair to compare what Hood has created to someone as visionary in all things sci-fi as George Lucas, and yet, considering the sizable budget expended on “Ender’s Game,” one could have hoped for something a bit more groundbreaking.

Even so, the sleek production design (by “Tron: Legacy’s” Sean Haworth and Ben Procter) and costumes (created by another “Tron: Legacy” alum, Christine Bieselin Clark) suggest a sleek, stylish future. Steven Jablonsky’s mostly-digital score, which sounds like Daft Punk plus strings, cements the film’s debt to that recent Disney reboot, and yet, “Ender’s Game” pushes the vidgame dynamic even further, as the characters progress, level by level, game by game, toward their epic showdown with the Formics.

Sequences involving the swarming alien ships, both in flashback to the earlier Earth invasion and in the pic’s white-knuckle finale, look plenty stunning, but somehow lack the sense of imminent threat the film sorely needs. The kids never seem to be in any real danger; nor does their home planet. Perhaps that’s for the best, considering how intense it already is for them to be marching about, saluting and spouting dialogue that normally belongs in the mouths of grown soldiers. Certainly, intergalactic war must qualify as what the MPAA calls “adult situations,” and yet, the film handles the showdown responsibly enough — including an open-ended epilogue about the consequences of Ender’s actions — that kids may come away from it better equipped to handle conflict on an interpersonal scale.

Film Review: 'Ender's Game'

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15 Imax, Los Angeles, Oct. 24, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production

A Summit Entertainment release and presentation in association with OddLot Entertainment of a Chartoff Prods., Taleswapper, OddLot Entertainment, K/O Paper Products, Digital Domain production. Produced by Gigi Pritzker, Linda McDonough, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Robert Chartoff, Lynn Hendee, Orson Scott Card, Ed Ulbrich. Executive producers, Bill Lischak, David Coatsworth, Ivy Zhong, Venkatesh Roddam, Ted Ravinett, Deborah Del Prete, Mandy Safavi.

Crew

Directed, written by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card. Camera (color, widescreen), Donald M. McAlpine; editors, Zach Staenberg, Lee Smith; music, Steve Jablonsky; production designers, Sean Haworth, Ben Procter; supervising art director, A. Todd Holland; art directors, Greg Berry, Clint Wallace; set decorator, Peter Lando; costume designer, Christine Bieselin Clark; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Jay Meagher; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Dane A. Davis; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M Hemphill; special effects supervisor, Yves Debono; visual effects supervisor, Matthew E. Butler; visual effects, Digital Domain, Method Studios, The Embassy, Comen VFX; animation, Vectorsoul, Post 23; stunt coordinator, Garrett Warren; physical creature effects, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr.; associate producer, Aaron Johnston; assistant director, Kim Winther; second unit director, Garrett Warren; casting, John Papsidera.

With

Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, VIola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Moises Arias, Aramis Knight, Suraj Parthasarathy, Khylin Rhambo, Jimmy Jax Pinchak, Conor Carroll, Nonso Anozie, Tony Mirrcandani.

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  1. Steven Cluck says:

    A film should be able to stand on its own without requiring someone to read a book first. Having said that I’ve read almost all of Orson Scott Card’s books. I know the story of Ender very well, and have been looking forward to this movie. But as I watched the movie I could point to scene after scene which can only be understood if you had read the book first. The scenes make no sense in context to the movie. It reminds me of 2001 a Space Odyssey. Anyone who loves this movie has read the book everyone else like myself says what just happened? I saw Ender’s Game in an Imax theatre on opening night with maybe 10 other people in the audience. I would love to see sequels, but the movie didn’t have the character development of his siblings to show how they would fit into the other books. Again only if you read the book first would you see how strong a character Peter really is. Maybe on DVD this movie will be better. I’m hoping the deleted scenes show the story better than what remained on the screen.

  2. Eric says:

    Serious? What the F do I care about anything in the review other than the F’n movie itself?

    I’m looking forward to seeing it in the theatres. It’s the only one this year that has interested me enough to NOT wait until DVD.

    As for PD, keep your personal views about other people to yourself. I don’t give a $hit about your bigotry.

  3. Pete says:

    “Though Card may have publicly revealed his own prejudices, the casting department has assembled a wonderfully diverse group of actors — male and female, they come in all colors, shapes and sizes — to serve alongside Ender”

    The reviewer has unintentionally beaten himself with the Irony-bat. He seems to imply surprise that Card hasn’t let his biases into the movie. At the same time, he lets his own biases into the review. Anyone who knows anything about Card would be aware of his statements that one shouldn’t use one’s writing to score political points – it’s all about the story/writing.

    In contrast, the reviewer uses a poorly-written review (not even having read the book, or he’d know about the diversity of the characters) to showcase his own political beliefs. Instead, like Card, he’d have been better served by focusing on the assigned task – writing a thorough review.

    How’s that bat feel?

  4. “Though Card may have publicly revealed his own prejudices, the casting department has assembled a wonderfully diverse group of actors – male and female, they come in all colors, shapes and sizes – to serve alongside Ender, including not only Latino best friend Bean (Aramis Knight) but also a fresh set of rivals and bullies, led by the odd-looking Bonzo (“Hannah Montana’s” Moises Arias).”

    It’s not the “casting” department that’s responsible for the ethnic diversity of Ender’s Game. It’s Card. All of those “wonderfully diverse” parts-Bean, Bonzo, Petra-were written as such by Card.

    I’m slightly surprised Debruge doesn’t know that.

  5. J.ALBERT Leyes says:

    Really ? Are you surprised that the “reviewer” didn’t read the book?

    i am wondering if he has really seen the movie and if he did, what he was on .

    Bottom line the CGI cinematics are very good, the adaptation and the acting mediocre at best.

    This is a very forgettable flick, if in the future you come across this movie flipping channels on the TV ,trust me you better of watching an old episode of Star Trek that you haven’t see before.
    The worse thing is that is set up for a sequel .

  6. tiffanyscripsit says:

    Hopefully there will be a movie for the sequel. While Ender’s Game delves into the psychology of children in warfare, Speaker for the Dead is more of an anthropological novel, examining the consequences of “othering” and colonialism. Neither novel is for children–but the first one is about them, whereas the sequel is about adults. James McAvoy could do well as an older Andrew Wiggin who has grown into his 35 years with fevered gaze intact.

  7. “Though Card may have publicly revealed his own prejudices, the casting department has assembled a wonderfully diverse group of actors.”

    The heck? The characters are diverse IN THE BOOK. Alai is an African Muslim, Bean is Greek, Bonso is Spanish, Petra is Armenian, Fly is Chinese, Mazer Rackham is Maori IN THE BOOK. Card wrote a whole novel about Muslims and Africans going back in time to stop Christopher Columbus and the genocide of the Americans. This is simply slanderous.

  8. Keith says:

    This is really one of the most mis-informed reviews I’ve ever read. I understand not reading the book before every adaptation, but don’t make sweeping generalizations if you don’t know the source material.

  9. John says:

    Hi Peter,
    Did you not understand the premise of the book?

    ” The kids never seem to be in any real danger; nor does their home planet.”

    The kind were “never” in danger, because they were playing a war game.

  10. Corinne says:

    “While Card had revealed his own prejudice…the _casting department_ has provided a wonderful diversity of actors”??? Are you kidding?? Have you at all examined the source material? Cards original novel has always been the hallmark of diversity, lol, and while full congragaltions are deserved for the casting department for finding excellent young thespians to fill the various roles, it’s hardly their own invention! In fact, your statement is twice offensive: not only did Card write the original diversity but the fact that it still REMAINS after this long in Hollywood-development-hell, is a testament to his insistence on maintaining the story’s integrity!!

  11. Bill says:

    Yes, let’s be thankful there’s no ‘pro-military propaganda.” We’d never want kids thinking that risking your life to defend Hollywood’s right to hate them was at all worthwhile.

  12. cullen says:

    I don’t know how they’ll make a sequel anyways. Will the continue on the next book in the Ender series which takes place centuries in the future with an older Ender and Valentine or will they take the story to Earth and follow Bean and his books? I personally wouldn’t mind either series. I could see people put off by the rest of the Ender series because of how it drifts away dramatically from Enders Game. There’s virtually no action in the next two books and the last two deal with some insane metaphysical questions. Where as the Bean series will deal with a lot more action and be placed on Earth as various countries position themselves for power using Enders team as a commanders for their country. Plus the Bean books have the super villain in Achilles.

  13. Bender's Aim says:

    The movie doesn’t have Wesley Snipes as “Kusho”. So I’m not going to see it! I’ll stick to Demolition Man, with Sly Stallone, Snipes and Sandrod Bullock!

  14. D.J. Schreffler says:

    A major point of the book is that it could not appear as though there were an immanent threat, so that Ender could defeat it. If he knew it were real, he would not have successfully commanded.

    To be true to the book, that same dynamic has to hold true, with it appearing as just a game until the dramatic reveal at the end of the final ‘simulation’.

    So for one who prefers movie adaptations to be true to the book, the ‘lack of immanent threat’ is a feature, not a bug.

    • ty says:

      Hope nobody saw that comment who hasn’t already read the book.

    • richard kraanen says:

      I fully agree!! This is the only comment that makes sense so far. Reading all comments I really wonder whether many people have understood the underlying philosophical issues of both the Ender’s game novel and it’s fololow-up: Speaker for the Dead.

  15. Robert Penner says:

    A few minor ethnic issues:

    1. In the novels, Bean is Greek and Nigerian. The actor, Aramis Knight, is a mix of German, Indian and Pakistani. Was there something in the film that implied Bean was Latino?

    2. Mazer Rackham is half-Maori, native of New Zealand, not Australia.

    3. Suggesting that a Maori face tattoo is “a poor man’s Darth Maul” is puzzling, to say the least. These tattoos are a sacred artform in Maori culture. The tattoo enhances Rackham’s character as a Maori warrior.

    http://www.newzealand.com/travel/media/features/maori-culture/maori_ta-moko-significance_feature.cfm

    Darth Maul, on the other hand, exemplified neo-Lucas’ “visionary” style over substance. Darth Maul was barely a character. He spoke exactly two lines. “At last we will have revenge.” Revenge for what? But since Darth Maul also has stuff on his face, and looks cooler on a movie poster, an actual character displaying the marks of a real culture somehow pales in comparison.

  16. Paul Crowley says:

    I don’t think the author of this article completely gets the point behind Ender’s Game. Certainly he doesn’t understand the meaning behind the title. Why does the boy have the nickname “Ender”? wondering about that question might lead a bit further.I want to see this movie. I want to see what has been made from the book. As far as I am concerned, the book and its first sequel are all about monsters. What it comes down to is when you decide that the only way to fight a monstrous enemy is to create a monster, well, you end up with a monster. In this case, a monster with a conscience.

  17. Stephen Miller says:

    “Though Card may have publicly revealed his own prejudices, the casting department has assembled a wonderfully diverse group of actors — male and female, they come in all colors, shapes and sizes — to serve alongside Ender,”
    I found the reviewers statement intolerant, inflammatory, and absent any form of critical thought. Trying to tar Mr. Card with a racist/misygonist brush because he doesn’t affirm a homosexual agenda is just transparently pathetic.

    • E Heung says:

      Well-said, and true!
      But what do you expect from so-called “journalists” these days, whether they write for CNN, CBS…or Variety!

  18. Geri McCall-Barrath says:

    What a shame the author of the article felt the need to compare “Ender’s Game” with “Star Wars”. SW was great special effects, for it’s time – but in truth little more than a western set in space. EG is based on a wonderful book with an amazing story. Yes, they both have a huge battle but whereas SW is all about the battle, EG is all about the preparation. I’m SO relieved to read that the majority of the film is set in battle school. The trailers make it appear as if it’s nothing but a space battle (yawn – been there, done that). I’ve been recommending the book for years, but after seeing the trailers I stopped because I thought they had ruined the novel by focusing on the battle. So glad to hear they haven’t.

  19. mel cohen says:

    I support this Directors opinion about creepy homos but will prolly not see this movie. Don’t ask, don’t tell and stop being so shrill.

    • D.J. Schreffler says:

      This appears to be a false-flag troll, trying to make those who hold a view look bad because he actually supports the other view.

  20. Michael Anthony says:

    Sorry, but no go for me. For decades Card has spread the word of the evils of homosexuality. His comments are deplorable and actually give ammunition to bullies. Now that the film is coming out, he pleads for tolerance from the very people he has condemned many years.

    Card is entitled to his views. But when he repeatedly attacks a minority publically, he deserves all the kickback he gets.

    • jongoff@yahoo.com says:

      You have no idea what you’re talking about. Card has never attacked homosexuals or homosexuality. In his book, Songbird, he does nothing to condemn homosexuals. He has a gay character who is a close friend and lover to the main character, so you simply have no idea what your talking about. He has simply said he doesn’t believe in gay marriage. A lot of people don’t. If I avoided movies that involved people I didn’t agree with, I’d never see another movie. Grow up, adults can have disagreements without pitching a fit. Children, however, take their ball and go home because they are immature little brats. Which are you, and adult or child?

  21. James says:

    Where’s the tolerance for discrimination??? I find it laughable when people say gay agenda– which is what exactly? And how is it being shoved down your throat exactly? The reviewer only mentioned because it was an issue and this really should only be about the movie not about what the authors comments were.

    • Ty says:

      The “gay agenda” includes targeting people who don’t believe that homosexuality is right – a couple running B&B in England who didn’t allow non-married couples, a young woman photographer in N.M. who didn’t do gay weddings, and bringing legal cases against them to force them to shut down or violate their moral beliefs. Craig James was fired from Fox Sports for having expressed an opinion a year prior, alongside 50% of America, that gay marriage was not good for our country. The “gay agenda” is about disregarding freedom of conscience for anyone with a differing opinion.

    • E Heung says:

      “…gay agenda–which is what exactly?”
      Are you dead or asleep or just stupid, James?
      Read much about “gay marriage” these days?

  22. Chris Luther says:

    Clearly the author of this article didn’t read the book.

  23. secret says:

    Agreed!

  24. Anti-bullying? Did anybody on your staff read the book at all? It’s about destroying an alien species, not anti-bullying. The government today in real life has a campaign against that. We don’t need science fiction to start carrying their water.

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