In a dystopian future where alien war has threatened Earth, a boy genius called Ender joins the ranks of an army of children who are trained to be war tacticians and becomes the world’s greatest hope to win the coming war.
Gavin Hood, 2013
Okay, so. Andrew Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a…pre-teen? Early teens? boy in a future where a race of insect-like (actually basically just big insects) aliens called Formics attacked Earth fifty-ish years ago, causing what we are told was a lot of devastation. The humans were nearly wiped out and only won thanks to the mysterious yet heroic actions of a soldier called Mazur Rackam (Ben Kingsley). They seem to have decided that kids are better at processing a lot of information than adults, so they put groups of kids through gruelling training for which the kids all sign up. The kids are raised on war games, and Ender is this brilliant tactician whose older brother and sister washed out of the program (too violent and too compassionate, respectively) so the army signs him on up. He goes to space where he trains with a bunch of other kids, some nice, some not so nice. He makes friend with an older girl called Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) who teaches him the basics of fighting, and he helps his team, the Dragons, win all the war games. His commander, Graff (Harrison Ford) decides he’s The One because he’s so super brilliant, so he gets promoted fast and manipulated by the adults in a big space battle.
I’m not totally sure if everything I wrote above is 100% accurate, but that’s partly because I was very confused throughout this movie. I’m sure I would have paid more attention if they gave me a reason to care about the war and the world that we are being invited to, but there’s very little world-building here. We see Ender at school, very briefly at home, and then he’s on a space station for the majority of the film. We’re given some brief context for the story and then we watch Ender go through essentially the same emotional events over and over again – he’s bullied, he overcomes the bullies. There’s a storyline involving Ender’s bully of a big brother, who we see once nearly strangling Ender to death while his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) looks on helplessly through a locked door; Ender doesn’t want to be like Peter, but violence comes out in him. So we’re treated to repeated voice-over moments from Ender during every fight about how he can feel Peter in him, but he doesn’t want to. And then again, and again. I haven’t read the source material and I could still feel it being dumbed down for the audiences; the only real issue presented is that it’s bad to train child soldiers and make them kill which…yes, duh. There’s no moral complexity, no world building, no decent characterisation. The film looks beautiful, but it’s empty and shallow. It’s just a poorly written, shiny spectacle.
The kids are given little to work with, the adults even less, but at least the kids try to make it work. Asa Butterfield is an amazing young actor who has to carry this film on his shoulders, and he gives it his all. Hailee Steinfeld is always good, and she and Abigail Breslin bear the burden of providing the film with all its heart and compassion, which they do their best at. Moises Arias puts in a good performance as a pint-sized bully, intimidating in spite of being smaller than the others, which would almost be interesting if they did something with him. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the supporting roles are filled by brown and black people while the leads are all white. Harrison Ford sleepwalks through this movie until finally getting a little fire under him at the end, but it’s too little too late. The movie is too thinly written for anyone to really get any traction, but I hope this furthers the careers of the talented kids in the film – I’d be thrilled to see Hailee Steinfeld get an action hero movie of her own one day.
None of Orson Scott Card’s politics come through in this movie. They wisely decided to cut the nickname of “buggers” for the aliens, and the message of the movie, if there is one, seems to be that you should try talking first instead of shooting first. Still, I didn’t give any money to this film. I have no interest in supporting Orson Scott Card.
Ender’s Game on IMDb