An introductory note: The purpose of this review is to serve solely as a review of the film Ender’s Game, without any reference at all to the content of the book, or changes therefrom etc. This review is for people who have not read the novel and want to experience the film entirely on its own merits. It is spoiler free beyond the most general plot outlines, which can all be gleaned from the previews alone.
The International Military seek out a leader who can save the human race from an alien attack. Ender Wiggin, a brilliant young mind, is recruited and trained to lead his fellow soldiers into a battle that will determine the future of Earth.
Ender’s Game takes place in the reasonably near future. Aliens called the Formics invaded Earth, and humanity barely managed to fight them off, thanks mostly to the actions of one particularly heroic soldier, Mazer Rackham. Fearing that the Formics are going to invade again and humanity may be unable to stop them, pretty much the entire world is on a war footing, trying desperately to train new commanders for their fleet. They’ve begun training children to be commanders. Their flexibility and creativity unhampered by years of previous military doctrine give them an edge to combat the Formics. Ender Wiggin is the best and presumably last hope to create a commander on the level of tactical genius that Mazer Rackham had, and the film follows his training and experiences in learning to command.
The trope of the Genius Child is always an interesting one to see in film. Striking the right balance between their intelligence and their age, and finding an actor who can carry it off, is a fine one. Asa Butterfield does a great job as Ender. He is young, inexperienced, but knows that he knows what he is doing, and there is exactly the right amount of confidence and fear to really make you identify with him. This feeling of ‘I’m the Best!……aren’t I?’ carries on throughout, and watching him struggle with trying to exist in a military organization while always wondering if maybe he knows better than his superiors gives Butterfield some powerful scenes.
The character of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) comes off incredibly gruff (perhaps thus the name) and at times exceedingly uncaring. You get that he is trying to be high-minded, concerned only with the overall picture of humanity’s survival, so he doesn’t care at all about individuals and what sacrifices they may need to make. But this gives him some pretty villainous scenes in a film where I’m not sure he is supposed to read that way.
The story felt a little rushed. It does build a sense of pressure for how vital Ender is to the war effort and how he is their last hope before the war starts, but they really could have scaled that back a little. I was going to write a paragraph or two about the various supporting characters and their performances, but the story sprinted along so quickly that you barely get time to get to know anybody before they are left behind. It also starts to strain credulity for Ender. He goes from an earth-based military academy to commanding thousands in extremely chaotic space battle simulations in just a few months. He may be a genius, but it was a little much.
Cinematographically, Ender’s Game is beautiful. Ender’s mental flexibility actually shows up quite a lot in the cinematography. We get a lot of changing camera views, angles shifting while they move around in zero-g. Ender makes an early intuitive leap that without gravity, there’s no such thing as objective directions. Down is whatever you decide it is, and throughout these scenes, the camera is rolling, yawing, coming around from different angles and it looked great. The space battle simulations looked more like an extremely high fidelity video game, with a control interface that reminded me immediately of the computer systems in Minority Report which helped cut down all of the usual bad space battle tropes. They also quickly got chaotic enough that you really just tune out the details and listen to their dialogue over the battle to keep up with what is going on.
My overall impressions of the film were positive. Butterfield does a great job, and really sells the character. The story, while fast-moving to the point of rushing, is engaging and interesting. Sir Ben Kingsley has an absolutely perfect New Zealand accent, but I wonder if he was there more to lend name weight as his role wasn’t especially worthy of requiring a top-of-the-line A-list actor, and they absolutely could have found a native New Zealander or Maori actor to do the part.
If you like an action-y sci-fi movie that isn’t just ships dogfighting, you’ll enjoy this movie. It does have at least a little to say about the military machine and that dogmatic ‘The goal is the most important, individual sacrifices aren’t just allowed, they are expected’ philosophy that often underpins it. I’m ambivalent about whether to say it was being critical of it, or espousing it, which means it did its job, because it will encourage people to discuss and debate about it rather than just agree or disagree with the position held by the film.
Ender’s Game isn’t going to become an enduring classic of sci-fi cinema, but it’s a fun two hours with a few great scenes, and few questions to think about afterwards. Worth seeing.