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Review: Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender’s Game (2013)

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Premise: An adaptation of the science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. Set in the future, human civilization has recovered from a devastating alien invasion. Children are recruited to pilot military spacecraft with one particular boy (Asa Butterfield) showing special talent.

What Works: Ender’s Game is a smart and well-made science fiction adventure. Although the fantasy and sci-fi movie marketplace is crowded at the moment, Ender’s Game stands out as one of the better entries in this genre in some time. The novel upon which the film is based is well known as a fantastical coming of age story and that is the strongest point of this adaptation. From Star Wars to The Matrix, gifted or chosen young people are a staple of this story genre; that often contributes to a subtle fascism that underlines many of these films and results in characters who are boring because they are so idealized. Ender’s Game goes the other way and its main cast of teen and pre-teenage characters have an authenticity to them that recalls the better entries of the Harry Potter series. Ender, the title character played by Asa Butterfield, comes across as an authentic character; he is smart and serious but this young man remains recognizably human in ways that many superhero characters often lack. His companions have a similar authenticity, among them Hailee Steinfeld as Petra, Suraj Partha as Alai, and Moises Arias as Bonzo. Despite the fantastic nature of the story, these young characters are confronted with very real conflicts and the filmmakers do a terrific job of making the situations and the characters’ responses to them authentic. Ender’s Game is a movie about the militarization of human culture and what that militarization does to individuals caught up in a culture of war. In that sense this film is closer to war movies like Full Metal Jacket than it is to recent action oriented science fiction and fantasy films like Battleship or The Avengers. That differentiates Ender’s Game from a lot of other movies with similar premises. The film is further distinguished because it actually questions the morality of violence. Even The Dark Knight trilogy, which deliberately deconstructed the mythos around vigilantism, ultimately validated the use of violence. While Ender’s Game is not decisively pacifistic, it does question the use of force and the responsibilities of societies and their soldiers. In a movie marketplace where violence is almost an afterthought and spectacles of mass destruction are rarely more than a firework display, Ender’s Game manages to be a subversive entry in the genre.

What Doesn’t: Although it is subversive, the moral questions of Ender’s Game don’t enter into the film until quite late and so much of the film progresses as a typical sci-fi actioner. When the film and its title character do finally achieve moral self-awareness, the story rushes through the final portion. This leaves the movie on an awkward note. It upendeds some of the fundamental assumptions of popular sci-fi movies but it does not take enough time to explore the implications and consequences of Ender’s new consciousness. A lot Ender’s Game is familiar from other movies. Some of that is due to the fact that the source novel is so influential and has impacted many subsequent sci-fi movies and television shows. As a result there are several scenarios, character types, and plot twists that recall other films. But Ender’s Game is also quite similar to a lot of other sci-fi and fantasy media in its visual style. The spaceship settings and alien worlds often look indistinguishable from many other motion pictures and video games.

Bottom Line: Despite a somewhat conventional approach to the filmmaking, Ender’s Game is a notable entry in its genre and it’s an intelligent counterpoint to the loud and largely brainless action films that have come to dominate Hollywood’s output. While not necessarily a classic, it is smart, well made, and very satisfying.

Episode: #465 (April 14, 2013)