“Ender’s Game” is jam packed with boffo special effects that bring its epic battle scenes to life, but the film isn’t really about that. It’s about empathy in a world that is in dire need of compassion and as such its best effect is in the clear blue eyes of its teenaged star Asa Butterfield.
The young actor—best known as the lead in “Hugo”—is physically slight to be playing a leader of men, but his piercing eyes suggest he has the strength and determination to be all he can be.
Based on a bestselling 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card, the story begins fifty years after Earth was almost annihilated by alien invaders called the Formics. Only the efforts of a brave fighter pilot named Mazer Rackham saved the planet, and in the subsequent years the army has been training recruits to take his place.
The program, lead by the hard-as-vanadium Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), focuses on videogame playing kids with lightening fast reactions and cognitive skills. Ender Wiggins (Butterfield) is a superstar among the best and the brightest, a young man who thinks tactically but has a complicated relationship with authority.
Through a series of ever escalating simulations the ruthless Graff trains Ender and his team—Hailee Steinfeld, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha and Conor Carroll—to become the last line of defense against the Formics and in doing so prevent all future wars.
There are obvious bloodlines connecting “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” to “Ender’s Game”—warrior kids with special powers—but a crucial element is missing. For as much time as they spend setting up Ender’s backstory, the cold father and violent brother that feed his problem with authority, by the time we get to the huge battle scenes (with villains we never meet) there doesn’t seem to be that much at stake.
We’re told the future of the human race depends on Ender’s actions, but the film doesn’t have the urgency to pull off its bombastic finale.
What it does have, however, is a complicated and timely view of the importance of honor, the value of state sanctioned violence and its desensitizing effect on Ender. That complexity is reflected in Butterfield’s eyes.
“Ender’s Game” has an old school feel to it, valuing the ideas of tolerance and diversity over the flash of the effects, but doesn’t quite find the balance necessary to truly succeed as a sci fi epic, although it’s almost worth the price of admission to see Harrison Ford float, Sandra Bullock style, through a space shuttle.
In it’s core cast the movie presents a diverse vision of the future, interesting given the troubling anti-gay politics of its author Orson Scott Card—he suggests gay rights is a “collective delusion” and gay marriage shouldn’t be legal—that more fits the Gene Roddenberry’s utopian cultural image of the future than you would expect from someone who also wrote an essay titled The Hypocrites of Homosexuality.
So, for me, “Ender’s Game” is a judge the art and not the artist situation. The movie works well. There’s a bit too much repetition in the early scenes—we get the backstory of the original Formic assault three times in the first twenty minutes—but perhaps the film’s positive messages of tolerance, compassion and understanding will drown out the less open-minded views of Card’s other work.