If the stakes were catastrophic enough, the training techniques were sufficiently intensive, and the world were just that unforgiving, who’s to say preteens couldn’t be accelerated to maturity and transmogrified into hardened soldiers like today’s eighteen-year-old American military volunteers?
Thus is the foundation laid for Ender’s Game: in a future where millions have perished at the hands of insectoid aliens (the predominant taxonomic class of Hollywood aliens), Earth’s last hope — and who knows how many hopes were wasted before the story begins — lie in an interstellar military system built on targeting the most gifted junior high students for recruitment, instead of the older kids least likely to go to college.
Enter Ender Wiggin (the phenomenal Asa Butterfield, from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) — hyperintelligent, shrewd, unassuming, scrawny, easy to underestimate. Eager to save the world yet humble enough to undergo the manipulative screening process, Ender unknowingly delivers such a promising impression to Harrison Ford’s gruff Colonel Graff that he’s admitted to Space Boot Camp, pegged as a potential star pupil, and fast-tracked through the promotion process by virtue of how skillfully he maneuvers his superiors into always seeing and doing things his way. In another context he’d be considered a spoiled brat; here, he’s exactly what Earth needs — a swindler with a heart of gold.
Along the path he befriends the local chapter of the Bad News Bears, tangles with the standard tough-as-nails drill sergeant (an intimidating Nonso Anozie, now costarring in NBC’s Dracula), ticks off the nearest bully-in-charge (Moises Arias, in a furious, radical departure from his days as annoying li’l Rico on TV’s Hannah Montana), receives sympathy from the only female officer in sight (Academy Award nominee Viola Davis), befriends the only other major teen actor in his squad (True Grit‘s Hallee Steinfeld, still solid but demoted to second-fiddle), and eventually works his way up to Last Starfighter College, where he and his hand-picked team run endless simulations (read: marathon gaming sessions) in preparation for their big tournament against the Formics, distant cousins of the Starship Troopers swarms, who would destroy us all because space insect reasons.
The beats of boot-camp life should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a war film, but young Butterfield stands confidently against all the challenges thrown his way — nobly bearing the pressures of adult expectations; staring down his haughty, know-nothing peers; rattling cages when his superiors dare interfere in his close connection with his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin, in pretty much the same boat as Steinfeld); and registering the massive internal dynamics at work when the lines between gaming and reality begin to blur, and the true nature of his mission threatens to tear his soul apart.
It’s been two decades or more since I read the original novel, so I’m no longer qualified to nitpick what parts did or didn’t make the transition from page to screen. Bean is naturally here, as is the heart-stopping twist in the final act, thankfully not given away in the trailers. As with my dim memories of the book, Ender’s Game is at its most entertaining when it keeps the cameras on space boot camp and the interplay between so many talented young’uns, all suffering the kind of regimented training that those mollycoddled Goonies never had to undergo. The star set-pieces are the zero-G classes and sparring matches, which have the unfortunate timing of following the wake of Gravity‘s free-floating duo, but boast their own balletic flourishes — playful stunts, group choreography, showy gunfights, that sort of thing. In those moments, Ender and his gang are at their freest, most childlike, and most alive…even if a few of them are probably CG mannequins.
Less interesting are the scenes of ostensibly epic space warfare. I’m sure the visual effects engineers were proud to spend thousands of man-hours animating and coordinating thousands of flying objects all competently sharing the screen simultaneously without overlapping or looking like models on strings. For this old man’s eyes, focusing on any one image became impossible. If you handed me a picture chart of all the spaceships used in the movie, I’d be at a loss to tell you which ones belonged to which side. Removed from the fray and any useful attachment, Ender and his team remotely flick switches and push hologram buttons safely back at home base while myriad indistinct drone armies carry out their various blurred functions. Those scenes, as complicated as I’m sure they were to compose, were basically like watching over a friend’s shoulder while they play a tower defense game — 100% more fun for the active participants than for the powerless audience. Hand me a controller and I might get invested in it.
Despite the ad campaign’s insistence that the spectacle of space skirmishes is the film’s core, Ender’s Game is at best adequate in that area, scoring higher much marks in cast interaction, surprise-filled performances, and slow buildup toward the simple, dignified rebuke of man’s natural, frequently amoral impulse for unconditional victory by any means necessary. This was a much more thoughtful vehicle than director Gavin Hood’s last project (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a dismal parade of squandered opportunities), but I’m a little disappointed we didn’t spend more time with Ender’s ineffective parents, one-note placeholders who had the right to ask a lot more questions on our behalf: should we be so willing to sacrifice our own children for such a cause? Even if they’re really good at it? Even if they’re asking for it?
To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Ender’s Game end credits. Three items of note therein, for what they’re worth:
1. Just before you exit the theater, challenge your friends to see who recognizes the most names on the list of fifteen (!) credited producers. Apparently this long-gestating project acquired quite a number of attachments during its nearly three decades in the making.
2. Practical effects wizards Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., whose long careers include most of the Alien series, are name-checked for creature effects. That would explain some convincing, familiar sights later in the movie.
3. The lone pop song in the entire film is a new track from the Flaming Lips called “Peace Sword in B Minor (Open Your Heart)”. What I could hear over the departing crowd’s footsteps sounded lush and I’d like an encore, but no one’s uploaded it online yet. Hurry up, internet.