Earth is attacked by an insect-like race called the Formics in 2086. The sacrifice and heroism of one pilot, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) defeated the Formics and won the war for Earth. Now, 50 years later, it appears the Formics are building their armada of space ships again leading to fear among Earth’s leaders of a pending attack. Preparing for a possible invasion since winning the last war, children are observed to find the best candidates for Battle School where they will be immersed in various simulations and games to train them for the next conflict. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a student who has drawn the attention of Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), the commander of Battle School. He’s also observed by Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) who oversees the psychological health of the recruits. Ender excels in areas of imaginative strategy and soon is promoted from his group of new recruits, called launchies, to the established and older group of students called Salamander Army. There he meets fellow student and teammate Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld) and Salamander’s leader Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). Bonzo takes an instant dislike to Ender, saying he’ll just slow his team down but actually sensing Ender as a threat to his control of the team. Petra helps Ender practice in the zero-gravity gym where all the teams battle and develop strategies they may use in a future real war. This infuriates Bonzo who threatens to kill Ender if he steps out of line again. Ender continues to excel in his studies and is soon put in command of his own squad of students who are considered misfits like him. After a zero-gravity battle where the Salamanders and another team are pitted against Ender’s new group and Ender’s imaginative strategy wins, Bonzo challenges Ender to a fight in the showers. During the fight, Ender shoves Bonzo backwards causing Bonzo to hit his head on a concrete step severely injuring him. Ender wants to leave the school and go home to see his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Graff brings Valentine to Ender, hoping she can convince him to rejoin the military. Graff and the rest of the commanders know there isn’t much time until the Formics will be ready to launch another attack and Ender and his unique ability to see a battlefield and come up with innovative strategies might be the only way Earth can win another war.
I approached “Ender’s Game” as a pretty standard sci-fi/action picture but came out of it pleasantly surprised. The movie is far more than just a bit of high-budget CG fluff. “Ender’s Game” has a surprisingly affecting message with characters that are far more than the genre tropes they could have been. The film speaks to what it means to be human, the price of winning at all costs and seeking to understand your enemy, not just destroy him. I feel certain there could be a fair amount of comparison to the war on terrorism being fought by our military and leaders today if anyone wanted to give it that much thought; but thinking isn’t required as “Ender’s Game” can be appreciated on a more superficial level.
“Ender’s Game” is in part a coming of age story. Ender must find the strength to be a leader before he’s old enough to shave. That’s a great deal of pressure to put on someone so young and Ender’s humanity takes a beating because of it. The audience is torn by Ender’s youth and the need for him to be a leader in the face of alien annihilation. There’s a feeling sadness and isolation that Asa Butterfield exudes as Ender that makes his performance rather touching. While he sometimes appears to be too soft and emotional considering what his character has to do and what he’s put through, Butterfield manages to make Ender a believable and relatable character. Harrison Ford seems a little all over the road as Graff. He’s at times a father figure to Ender while sometimes acting more as an enemy. It all makes some sense once the full story is on display. Hailee Steinfeld isn’t really a romantic interest for Ender. Petra is more of a confidante and support system and Steinfeld is able to play the role believably without being just a stereotypical female. She gives Petra strength and a unique personality that shines in what could have been a rather forgettable part. The rest of the cast is also very good with some young actors who, should the book series become the next film franchise, could find themselves with long careers in the Ender movies as many of them are featured in other books.
The story is a bit convoluted as it is being condensed from two books into a two hour movie. The dense nature of events is necessary as the story is meant to convey a great deal of emotional growth in Ender as well as a fair amount of message. It may have been a bit ambitious to try and tell this story in one movie; but the studio couldn’t predict if there would be a market for a second film so they decided to squeeze as much as possible into one. It makes the movie one that needs to be paid attention to in order to fully appreciate the story. The audience can merely be impressed by the visuals but the full power of the film is in the whole experience and that requires being focused on the dialog and the emotions of the characters. Most audiences won’t want to invest that kind of effort into what’s being sold as a sci-fi epic. It will be their loss.
“Ender’s Game” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, some violence and sci-fi action. The concept of children being used to fight a war, even one that is fought in the sleek environs of an imagined future, could prove disturbing to some. Scenes of violence are brief but intense. There is a great deal of shooting in the zero-gravity gym but being hit only renders the player briefly immobilized. There is no foul language.
“Ender’s Game” manages to wrap up a fairly deep message in a flashy package of computer generated effects and attractive young actors. Whether audiences come along for the ride will decide if we’ll see any more of Ender’s adventures. I for one hope this isn’t the last we see of the child forced to grow up far too quickly.
“Ender’s Game” gets five guitars out of five.
A new week means more new movies and I’ll review one based on your votes. Check out the films below and pick the next flick I see.
About Time—When Tim Lake is 21, his father tells him a secret: The men in their family can travel through time. Although he can't change history, Tim resolves to improve his life by getting a girlfriend.
Thor: The Dark World—Thor fights to restore order across the cosmos...but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness.
Twelve Years a Slave—In the years before the Civil War, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changed Solomon's life forever.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres and On Demand.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
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