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.