You’d think there’d be a bit more to the battle for humanity and the ultimate war for survival, but “Ender’s Game” ends up falling a little flat in the end.
In the new film, adapted from the 1986 novel of the same name, humans face the threat of the Formics, an alien species with which the humans have come into conflict with twice before. In order to prevent any future attacks, the humans develop a program through which they hope to find their next military commander who will lead them to a final victory against the alien foes. Children are monitored and chosen to enroll in Battle School and Command School, where they play constant battle games and learn how to fight, strategize and lead. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a brilliant young boy, is expected to become the next great military commander and faces bullying, manipulation, moral dilemmas and other difficulties while he is pushed to become the savior of humanity.
The allure of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” lies in its exploration of politics, war and morality through the vehicle of his protagonist, Ender, who simultaneously exhibits the intelligence and moral understanding of an adult and the creativity and innocence of a child. Ender’s development is what drives the book, and while the movie does, for the most part, keep in step with the book—even going as far as taking the some of the dialogue almost verbatim from the text—it misses out on some of the vital elements that made the book so celebrated.
As Ender, Asa Butterfield (“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Hugo”) effortlessly exudes the maturity and intelligence necessary in any portrayal of the character. However, the film only skims the surface of the character, unable to find a way to aptly capture his psychological states, his full gamut of emotional changes, his motivations and his fears.
Ender’s love for his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), which serves as the major impetus to Ender’s actions, while insisted upon by a number of overly sentimental voiceovers, is still mostly skipped over, with Breslin barely getting any screen time. Similarly, Ender’s fear of his brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) and, more importantly, Ender’s fear of becoming a sadistic killer like his brother, is not given enough thought. Ender’s struggle with isolation and friendship, which is another major part of his development, is touched upon, but not in enough detail to make it believable.
Harrison Ford and Viola Davis appear as Colonel Graff and Major Gwen Anderson, respectively, officers in the International Fleet whose job is to groom Ender to become the next commander. Ford grumps through the movie with no more than a furrowed brow, while Davis plays the empathetic officer who questions their methods. Essentially, Ford and Davis, who undoubtedly have more talent than is exhibited in this film, are set up in a bit of a bad cop-good cop situation that does nothing for the development of their characters.
Ben Kingsley also appears in the film as Mazer Rackham, a former war hero who miraculously beat all odds to defeat the Formic army in one of the past wars. Even though he is sorely underused, Kingsley still delights as the wise hero.
Even though the film lacks in its character development, the zero gravity simulated battles and training sessions that the children undergo are interesting, visually appealing and easy to follow.
Those who have read the book know how anti-climactic the ending is, and the film follows in that same pattern. Despite its cast and its visuals, “Ender’s Game” loses the thoughtfulness and heart of the book and ultimately becomes just another so-so action movie.