Ender's Game has become a fan and cult favorite for readers over the last 25-plus years. For years, it never got that big screen adaptation, that big-budget science fiction flick that would appease diehard fans and newbies alike. Well, we got it, and maybe with the advances in technology, it was worth the wait. Hitting theaters a few weeks ago and struggling a bit at the box office as I write this review, 2013's Ender's Game.
Fifty years into the future, Earth has moved on from an alien invasion by a race known as the Formics. The war and invasion was costly, millions of people killed in the blink of an eye and the subsequent attacks. Five decades later, the International Fleet continues to prepare for a counterattack, turning to children and teenagers to lead the defense. Among the trainers are Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and his right hand officer, Major Anderson (Viola Davis), always trying to find the child best suited to lead the defense of mankind. Among the thousands of trainees, Graff thinks he's found the right subject, the perfect individual to lead the defense, a young boy named Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), the youngest of three children who is brilliant in his analysis and clear-thinking in almost all his actions. He displays all the characteristics they're looking for, but is he really the best choice? Is he almost too smart? Can young Ender keep his own demons under wraps to live up to his potential?
I never read Card's novel the movie is based on. Deal with it. Okay, that's a little harsh. Just want to get that out there. I'm not a fan, haven't read it, and went into this movie without any expectations of what this movie had to live up to it. From director/screenwriter Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), 'Game' is a pretty entertaining, polished, well-told science fiction story that I loved for half of its 114-minute running time. It has a ton of potential, plenty to the point I'm still looking forward to checking out Card's original novel. 'Game' asks a lot of questions, some pretty dark considering this is a movie at least somewhat aimed at a teenage audience. On a familiar level, there's growing up and discovering who you are as a person, but there's much more. It's living and dealing with your flaws, embracing on them or working at them, becoming part of a group or becoming a leader and on a far bigger level, the loss of a few for the savior of many. It's pretty heady stuff.
Visually, 'Game' is what a science fiction film can be when computer-generated images are used to aid a story rather than overwhelm it. The CGI blends seamlessly at all times here, a future down the road some but not so far removed from the 2013 world we know now. When Ender is sent to Battle School, we're introduced to a West Point-like culture in Space Station form floating through space far above Earth. The school and its tech-heavy hallways and corridors looks familiar, like something we've seen in countless other sci-fi movies, but with a new spin. The coolest thing is the Battle Room, an expansive, enclosed zero gravity circle where the Armies of the Battle School learn strategy and battle theory, all while floating through space while still doing battle. As we see more, I thought it's cool to see that Ender and his fellow trainees use touch screen-like technology to lead armies of spaceships, drones, fighters and thousands of people. It ain't too far removed from iPads, iPhones and any number of other modern tech items. Yeah, it could have a cool charm if it had been made in the 1980s, but how about 2013? It's a pretty ideal time for a story like this with that sort of technology.
A very talented young actor, Butterfield is excellent as young, talented, even troubled Ender Wiggins. The movie depends on him so that he steps up to the plate is a huge positive. The fact that the character has touches of the Christ figure -- the One to save us all, the Savior -- is subtle without beating us over the head with the message too. The young actors are solid across the board, especially Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Petra, a fellow Battle School student who befriends Ender, and Abigail Breslin making the most of a stereotypical part as Ender's worrying sister, Valentine. As for the rest of the students, look for Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias as a violent rival for Ender, and a handful of other parts that all handle themselves really well. It's encouraging to see this many young actors perform so well, and all in one movie.
The focus is on the child parts, but the adult actors don't disappoint either. Harrison Ford has a good part, playing against type a bit, as Colonel Graff, the commanding officer who's intentions are not perfectly clear. How far is he willing to go to accomplish his goals? What is he willing to sacrifice? Viola Davis provides the perfect counter, a voice of reason and clear-thinking, to Ford's Graff. Ben Kingsley is poorly used as Mazer Rackham, a legendary pilot who provides quite the example for the young students. Nonso Anozie has a fun part as Sergeant Dap, the drill sergeant hovering over the students with an iron fist.
So what's the problem? It's hard to peg. I think there's just too much going on for its own good with a movie that runs just under two hours. The training sequences become repetitive quickly, and then all the sudden we're at the finale! There's the ending and then a quasi-twist that continues the movie for another 10 minutes that limp to the finish. It's not a bad movie by any means. There's a lot of positives, A LOT of them, but I came away mildly disappointed because the start was so strong. I still feel very comfortable recommending it, but I could have recommended it more if that makes any sense.
Ender's Game (2013): ** 1/2 /****