Ender’s Game (film review)
Ender’s Game (2013)
1 hr. 54 mins.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Viola Davis
Directed by: Gavin Hood
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Science Fiction/Action Adventure/Children’s Space Fantasy
Critic’s rating: ** ½ stars (out of 4 stars)
Filmmaker Gavin Hood’s ‘Ender’s Game’ is an inquisitive sci-fi actioner that skillfully caters to the kiddie crowd while asking some mighty adult-oriented philosophical questions about the morality of war and the questionable boundaries of survival. Hood’s glossy space-aged drama for the adventurous junior set can be deemed as being presented more ambitious for the juvenile sensibilities or, at least, in comparison to other notable pop cultural genres such as the tepid ‘Twilight’ series that inexplicably meshed grown-up themes within a wild fantasy child-coated universe.
Gavin (‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’) Hood’s futuristic fable tries to set the stage for the coming-of-age consequences of minors and militaristic mayhem and at what cost all of these considerations amount to in the scheme of what matters the most, victory and validation. ‘Ender’s Game’ is based upon the 1985 Orson Scott Card book. Hood’s sleek-looking CGI-driven narrative is quite interesting as it attempts to convey the perverse parallels of indelible young souls embracing strategic tendencies that are not so cookie cutter for the less ruthless of the heart. In a harsh existence, children, however vulnerable or venerable, are often asked to embrace a hardened way of life for the sake of their unsettling realities. In the case of ‘Ender’s Game’, there are no easy solutions when mixing talented tykes with the complicated alienation of warfare.
The setting is rather straight-forward. It is in the future when we discover that Earth is getting over a severe invasion attack some fifty years earlier by the alien intruders known as the Formics. Thankfully, astute Maori pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) was instrumental in forcing the Formics back to their home colony. Nevertheless, the Earthlings are in constant paranoia about their possible return and must address this concern. Just how defensive must one be to guard against the unpredictable Formics anyway?
One progressive approach to ensuring the safety of the exposed Earthlings against this pesky and intrusive alien race is to develop at the space station an enterprise known as the Battle School. This venue is specifically for extensively training and molding the most elite and resilient youngsters available to confront the Formics and protect the interests of the planet. After all, the Earth’s future is at stake and what better way to invest in its welfare than to groom the brightest children for its commitment to keeping it safe and sound from the ominous Formics?
Among the promising baby-aced prodigies that the Battle School has prepped for such combative preparation is the daring phenom Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin (Asa Butterfiled, ‘Hugo’), an ace in the hole that shows the most potential as tomorrow’s top-notch commander-in-the-making. Ender definitely has the golden goods to prevail as a decorated fighting specimen whose skills can be put to productive use to contain the feisty Formcs. However, Ender raises some doubts because his wrestling with the morals of ‘the noble cause’ to achieve independence for mankind through war-like tactics occasionally feels rather stark to him.
Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) is a true believer in Ender’s abilities as a resourceful military tool or at least this is his belief system as he tries to convince psychiatrist Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) of the battle boy’s cut-throat capabilities. What is quite fascinating is the impressionable Ender deliberating over his incessant struggles with compassion for the extermination of other rival living creatures versus the display of mechanical coldness in which he is asked to destroy lives for the betterment of his societal confines.
The tedious program at the Battle School certainly takes its toll on the gifted Ender. The rigorous exercises, high expectations and diverse personalities all manifest into a ball of confusion for the gung-ho teen sensation with the itchy trigger finger. The experiences at the Battle School swing from the comforting distraction of Ender befriending fellow cadet in the form of Petra Arakian (Hailee Steinfeld, ‘True Grit’) to crossing paths with demanding Cadet Officer Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias).
‘Ender’s Game’ resonates when it questions the landscape of ludicrousness, the exploitation of child soldiers, genocide as a defensive method, questionable jingoistic overtones, political warfare, etc. Hood does a decent job at posing the outrageousness of sacrifice at the hands of young minds caught up in the quandary of self-destruction for the purpose of self-preservation. The provocative sentiment in ‘Ender’s Games’ is challenging and quite refreshing. Still, Hood’s sci-fi spectacle might be too slight and soft to carry off the hardcore heavy-handedness of its convictions. The ‘war is hell’ message rings true and blue but the presentation of the psychological ramifications of war and the hyperactive action sequences feel somewhat mismatched in spurts. The heralded effort to invite some steady consciousness into this frenetic action-packed fold is admirable though.
As the film’s lead, Butterfield is convincingly passable as the youthful chosen one designated to enforce the code of battle in this sci-fi saga of acne and acrobatics. Notable veterans such as Ford’s gruff leader, Davis’ inquiring head shrink and Kingley’s warhorse hero are fine and dandy despite being a few notches above being considered one-note characterisations mixed into the cinematic soup. The special effects, set production, cinematography and music composition are colorful and invigorating.
True, there is nothing earth-shattering about ‘Ender’s Game’ to uplift it from other conventional Science Fiction offerings where rolling the dice for survival is the name of the game. In any event, the movie does give an insightful new meaning to the common phrase of ‘child’s play’.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: