A Sci-Fi Exercise in “Been There, Done That”
Ender’s Game,the motion picture based on Orson Scott Card’s classic 1985 science fiction novel, isn’t an awful movie. It’s just not a very good movie. Card’s premise
was intriguing in the mid-‘80s when I read the novel in high school. Children prove to be quick studies at learning foreign languages, mastering musical instruments, playing video games and other activities that require “saturation” in the subject matter at hand. So, maybe children would make the ideal soldiers of the future?
That was interesting in 1985. However, in 2013, Orson Scott Card’s novel isn’t so…. er, novel, anymore. We’ve seen Katniss and the gang become teenaged gladiators in The Hunger Games. Then we have to acknowledge that book and film are a near-total rip-off of the Japanese novel and film Battle Royale (2000) which itself spawned a sequel in 2003. (And you thought sequels were just an American invention.) So, we have to consider the possibility that “teenagers as lethal warriors” isn’t a terribly interesting premise at the cineplex at this point.
In the opening scenes of the film, we are introduced to Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) who lives on a post-apocalyptic Earth of sorts. Our global society has survived an intergalactic war with an insect-like race known as the Formics. There were millions of human casualties. As a result, the International Military was formed, and all children on Earth are drafted for a period to determine if they are “soldier material”.
After both of his siblings wash out of Battle School, Ender comes to the attention of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) due to his test results and his reasoning skills. Ender stands up to a class bully and extracts himself from a violent situation with brute force, and he backtalks the occasional superior to demonstrate his independent thinking. Otherwise, we have to take Colonel Graff’s word that Ender is the future of super-soldiering because there isn’t much evidence of Ender’s superiority on screen.
Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) is on-hand to help the children deal with the psychological traumas sustained during their training. Oddly, she never has a single scene with one of the children she is responsible for. She mostly serves to play Devil’s Advocate to all of Graff’s speeches about the necessity of training kids to kill. (I kept thinking how much more interesting the film might have been if Ford and Davis had traded roles. But that would be thinking WAY outside the box for this by-the-number film.)
Does Ender ascend to the top ranks of his Command School class? Does human ingenuity prevail in the war against the Formics? Is there a long climactic sequence where thousands of CGI spaceships blow up? I’ll never tell. (Is calling a film “predictable” a spoiler? I’ll have to look in the Film Critic’s Rulebook and get back to you on that one.)
With any “coming of age” movie (sci-fi or otherwise), the project tends to stand or fall on the strength of its young cast. Stand By Me (1986) and Mud (2013) are two examples where the ensemble of teenaged actors took good material and made it great. Ender’s Game, on the other hand, offers a collection of cherubic faces and bland performances that leave the audience with no emotional investment in the outcome. (I found myself thinking of these kids like a racially diverse scorecard: Black Kid No. 1, Hispanic Kid No. 2 and The Girl). Asa Butterfield is competent in the title role. He cries. He gets angry. But, I never bought him as a commander of his peers. He’s so slight of build that he looks like a little kid dressing up for Halloween. It’s not the actor’s fault. He’s simply miscast.
Harrison Ford delivers a one-note performance throughout that left me wondering if he’s just acting for the paycheck at this point. He plays Colonel Graff, a name that is one vowel away from the adjective that best describes his performance – gruff. He barks at adults. He barks at the child soldiers. We get no backstory for him. He’s just another in a long line of stern military father figures who just are who they are with no real explanation as to why.
The direction and editing are both choppy. There is no real style to the film. It can best be described as “workman-like”. At times the transitions are so abrupt that I wondered if the narrative connective tissue was left on the cutting room floor. For a 120-minute film, there is a great deal that remains unexplained when the credits roll. The ending plays like it was tacked on to leave open the possibility of a sequel or two. Or maybe test audiences didn’t like the possibility of a “dark” ending, so a new one was shot to offer some type of hope or redemption for Ender’s future.
The track record for turning seminal sci-fi novels into major motion pictures has always been poor. Dune (1984), Starship Troopers (1997) and I, Robot (2004) are just a few examples of universally-accepted science fiction masterpieces that underwhelmed on the big screen. (Although I must admit that Starship Troopers falls in that rare category of films that are so bad they’re kind of entertaining.) So, Ender’s Game is the newest addition in a long line of science fiction films. Unfortunately, it’s a tradition of mediocrity.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.