In the aftermath of an alien attack on Earth, the brightest and most promising children are recruited into an advanced military school, in the hope they can protect the world from a future attack. Ender (Asa Butterfield) is one such child. Deliberately ostracised from the other recruits by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender soon becomes the leader of a band of misfits, and perhaps the strongest weapon against the enemy.
Based on a book by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game is the latest in a long line of books with a young adult at the centre of the story to be given the big screen treatment. Asa Butterfield shakes off the wide-eyed innocence of Hugo as he takes on a character who, by his own admission, must find a balance between violence and compassion. For some reason, it seems that Ender more accurately treads the line between insolence and obedience, which is a strange combination at times. Butterfield does fine with the role, and excels in the final act of the film, but even though he has grown about a foot since his outing in Scorsese’s film, it is hard to imagine him as anything other than a 12 year old boy (he’s 16!).
The rest of the cast of kids is made up of Hailee Steinfeld, who had her breakthrough in True Grit, as the love interest/inspiration for Ender, Aramis Knight, Jimmy Pinchak and Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine. This is Ender’s story though, and the rest of the kids just fit into his world. The adults have an even stranger time of it; Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff comes off as cruel and cold, why Ender is drawn to him seems inexplicable. Viola Davis is completely underused as Major Gwen Anderson and Ben Kingsley, as Mazer Rackham, plays Ender’s idol and odd mentor. He is slightly less over the top than he was in Iron Man 3, but comes off as an impish man with odd facial tattoos.
As far as the story is concerned; Ender’s Game is based on a book written in 1985, which may go some way to explain the oddness of the plot. Everything feels like a game – a contradictory game where everything is utterly important, while remaining totally trivial – but it does not seem like any of the players are having any fun. The dialogue is often corny, and the twists and turns of the plot become so twisty turny and needlessly complicated, that at times it is hard to keep track. Oh, and the film opens with a quote from the protagonist, written across the screen. Is it just me, or is that weird?
Screenwriter and director Gavin Hood has had an odd career to date. His breakthrough film, Tsotsi currently sits at 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been praised as powerful and emotionally charged. Hood then had his US breakthrough with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was quite simply, dreadful. Hood then retreated to TV for a few years, and has returned with Ender’s Game. At times it is hard to tell whether some of the wooden – yet somehow ridiculously over the top – acting is the fault of the script, the actor or the director. Surely some responsibility must fall at Hood’s feet? When the film was originally optioned, author Orson Scott Card was determined to write the script himself, pulling and pushing focus in the film so that the audience knew more than the protagonist did. It seems Card’s script was thrown out when Warner’s rights to the film expired, leaving the story to go through another re-write. This has to be part of the reason that a story that should be filled with suspense and danger, often feels flat and uninspired.
As well as this, so much focus is given to the ‘Game’, that the audience may find themselves wondering why they should care about any of this, since many of the characters are utterly unlikeable. On the positive side, the film is not in 3D (hurrah!) and the visuals are rather impressive; as they should be, since the film had a budget of $110 million.
Ender’s Game is an uninspiring film. Much of the acting is so wooden that the characters come off as cold and one note, the dialogue is often cheesy and the Game such a focus that nuance and subtext somehow get lost. Asa Butterfield does what he can – and often does well – as does the rest of the cast, but Hood’s writing and direction often leave a lot to be desired.