Ender’s Game is somewhat of an conflicting film, in that one moment you’ll be left you gaping, and another scratching your head in a frustrated state of confusion. I enjoyed watching it quite a bit, and since I haven’t read the book, don’t have anything to compare it against, but the movie’s faults really hold it back from being what could’ve been a truly great movie.
The movie follows Ender Wiggins, a brilliant young boy who has been enrolled in Battle School, a intensely challenging academy for youngsters that teaches and prepares them for the inevitable return of humanity’s greatest threat, an alien race known as the Formics. It’s an intriguing premise to be sure, but one that sadly is never used to its full potential.
I’m sure that Orson Scott Card’s novel more than delivers on the potential inspired by the premise, and I intend to read it now that the movie has intrigued me this much, but for a film that places such a large emphasis on its characters and their intense moral dilemmas, Ender’s Game feels oddly hollow.
First off, the threat of the insect-like Formics is never truly felt, and while they present the viewer with some staggering visuals and excitement, we never really know what they are, or why they’re so evil. Part of this is addressed during the film’s two-hour running time, but not to an extent that is satisfying in the least.
The Formics are made out to be a terrifying threat to humanity’s existence, but outside of a few brief flashes of violence, we’re never shown why we should be afraid of them, which makes the entire film’s suspense level crumble to an almost non-existent level.
However, when the story centers on Ender and his own person journey, the film drastically improves. Ender is a brilliantly layered, complicated character who single-handedly carries the film on his shoulders. While Ender is obviously a hero, his inner dark side shows itself more than once and it’s in these brief, brutally honest moments that Ender’s Game is at its absolute best.
The whole movie itself is basically one giant moral question, and it’s this question that drives the story forward even when the Formic threat doesn’t. Ender and his fellow Battle School students are all fully-realized, relatable characters that you want to see succeed no matter what the cost, and seeing their relationships grow is one of the film’s most rewarding aspects.
Asa Butterfield is brilliant in the lead role, and he gives a riveting performance that fills his every scene with an electric flair that bleeds into everyone he comes into contact. His scenes with the rest of the cast are lively and entertaining, and Butterfield fills his every line with an edge that’s gleefully infectious.
While some of the other Battle School students are a bit bland, for the most part they all perform quite well. Hailee Steinfeld is an obvious standout, and she acts as a nice counter-balance to the mostly male cast while simultaneously giving an extra bit of life to some of the film’s best scenes.
However, it’s Harrison Ford’s complicated Colonel Graff that nearly steals the show. While he might be manipulative and even threatening to these kids, the viewer can’t help but relate to him as he struggles to balance the importance of their success and the moral implications of what it could entail for the children that have been put under his care.
Ford’s scenes with Butterfield are especially great, as the two play off each other shockingly well, with young Butterfield more than holding his own against the infamously gruff Ford. Their aggressive chemistry is incredibly entertaining to watch, and the two of them are responsible for most of the film’s success.
Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley also give in great performances, however, I wish we saw more of them, as their screen-time is sadly limited and they’re not given the necesarry time to really do anything special with their respective characters. They do well with what they’re given, but it’s not enough to really cement them as major players.
The same can be said for Abigail Breslin, who I’ve always been a big fan of, who plays Ender’s sympathetic older sister Valentine. She’s instantly likable and gives her lines just enough heart to make them hit home without sounding over dramatic and I really do wish she was given more material to work with.
For the most part, Ender’s Game moves along at a satisfyingly brisk pace, balancing the wonderfully executed action that takes place in the Battle Rooms with the more quiet, intimate moments amongst the characters. Even though I found the Formic threat to be lackluster, there was always enough happening on-screen to keep me invested.
The action sequences are intense and exciting and are displayed in a truly wonderful fashion, often relying on the characters to inject life into the fantastic visual effects instead of the other way around. While the film does rush through some plot points, it builds up to a crescendo that hits all the right notes and delivers a more than satisfying climax.
Despite this gut-wrenching, morally thought-provoking climax, the actual ending is sadly disappointing. It’s a rushed, poorly explained conclusion that tries to be moving but instead just falls completely flat because of its absurd lack of explanation and depth.
While I thoroughly enjoyed watching Ender’s Game for the things it does right, its flaws can’t be ignored. When it’s in its element, however, Ender’s Game is an immensely entertaining science fiction movie that hits a lot of the right notes, and is still able to present a satisfying viewing experience even amidst its shortcomings.