Movie Review: “Ender’s Game”

In a future where families are encouraged to not over breed, Ender Wiggin is “a third,” the third child born to his family. “An extra.”
Skinny and pale, he is bullied at school. But he’s been observed, singled out by the state. How he problem solves during video games, how he copes with bullies — his cunning, ruthlessness and measured compassion — are assets.
“The world’s smartest children are our best hope,” military leaders tell each other. And Ender (Asa Butterfield) is such a “best hope,” chosen for Battle School, selected to be a leader because Young Adult fiction desperately needs another “chosen one.”
“Ender’s Game,” based on Orson Scott Card’s 1980s novel, is a glossy, humorless march through a future where kids are our best warriors, able to multi-task combat duties and reason out strategies for battle success in an instant. Card’s military meritocracy, on the screen, plays like “Starship Troopers” without a tongue-in-cheek touch to its fascism, “The Last Starfighter” without the wit.
But in the hands of South African Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) the story’s moral quandary, about kids learning to kill before they learn compassion, stands front and center.
“Game” follows Ender into Battle School, where his ability to master the skills of combat command are on display at every turn.
“We need a Julius Caesar, a Napoleon,” growls Col. Graff (Harrison Ford).
They’re all still children, argues the yin to his yang, Major Anderson (Viola Davis).
Indeed they are — martial, militaristic kids culled from the population, formed into teams and trained for battle in weightless simulations where they learn tactics that will serve them in Earth’s war for survival against the Formics, bug-eyed space-travelers who almost conquered Earth decades before.
Ender is not the heartless killer his older brother (Jimmy ‘Jax’ Pinchak) is, not the empathetic pacifist his sister (Abigail Breslin) turned out to be. Threatened by a rival, he out thinks, out negotiates or outfights each one in his turn.
Butterfield (“Hugo”) makes a fine all-business soldier-in-the-making, but barely suggests a mind that is broadening in spite of the narrow, kill-or-be-killed focus of his training. Moises Arias and Hailee Steinfeld are well-cast as part of this distinctly multi-cultural school of the best and the brightest, and the movie perks up quite a bit when Ben Kingsley shows up as that last-stage-in training instructor. Performances up to that point feel uniformly flat.
But even taking into account the limitations of an “introduction to a franchise” film, “Ender’s Game” is pretty stiff. Shiny spaceships, vivid space battles (simulations for the trainees) and kids who don’t quite fill out their jumpsuits and cool combat games are all fine. With all the bullying and kids turned into killers stuff, the film never feels less than heavy handed.
So sure, it’s good-looking, cautionary and clever enough. But there’s not much in this “Game” that you’d call heartfelt, thrilling or fun.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley
Credits: Written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on the Orson Scott Card novel. A Summit release.
Running time: 1:54

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Movie Review: “Ender’s Game”

  1. Eric says:

    So this is a movie that is too provocative and serious to be worth watching? But Starship Troopers and The Last Starfighter are better alternatives? This makes perfect sense… on crack.

    • Uh, no. Too callow and heartless to chew up the themes it takes a bite of.

      • walter lee says:

        Ender’s Game read like Starship Trooper and the 1984. In reality – War is often callow and heartless – I personally don’t have a problem with callow and heartlness but I might not want to show a 8-12 year old that kind of film. I do have a problem with movies and literature that glorifies War and its Heroes and demonizes its Enemies as one dimensional idiots because the world is more complex than that. In Ender’s Game – the antagonist isn’t really the Formics (which are props just to setup the main conflict in the plot) but the futuristic military society that controls every aspect of the life of the protagonist Andrew Wiggins (Ender) – who has been singled out to lead them to military victory. The conflict is how deeply embedded a war time footing military invades into Ender’s life and how he reacts to that kind of intense control. The difficulty in making this story is you need to address both the physical conflict that society puts Ender into which is mainly done in free floating space and the psychological conflict inside Ender’s mind and heart ( partly explained in a video game) as he is forced to grow up not sure who is his friend and who is just out there trying to manipulate him.

  2. GokouZWAR says:

    “and kids who don’t quite fill out their jumpsuits”

    REALLY?? Why does this matter at all? Do you want to see well hung boys in these tight suits? Do you want to see large breasted teenage girls in spandex? Pay attention to the movie…I think your mind is in the wrong place…This isn’t supposed to be a comedy so I wouldn’t expect any Wit that the last star fighter had. This is supposed to be a serious movie about real issues.

    The moral quandary about kids learning to kill was part of the original book and Hood merely put it on the screen. The adults drilled this into the kids, and THAT is the moral quandary. Should we do this to our children? Its a training school for the military. No one goes into an army base and says “Put those guns down! They’re too violent! Here’s a squirt gun…” The training program drilled into these kids to be the best of the best and some like bonzo took it too far while the adults stood by and watched idle doing nothing. Without giving away too much on the end for your readers, Ender doesn’t want to kill the formics anymore than he wanted to kill bonzo or stilson, but he had to fight to save those that he loved (from the formics) and bonzo and stilson from hurting him (the self). If you were given the choice between killing someone who would come and kill you later if you didn’t kill them right then and there, would you let them live? In the book the doubt is there, “I will fight this fight everyday. I have to win it now and for good.” The fact was that he got lucky (in all 3 murders) by hitting that killing blow by accident was the only reason he won. It doesn’t make him someone with violent tenancies. It makes those that used him as a tool and taught these things to him monsters (graff). In the books after each murder ender is racked with grief over what he did and all he thinks he did was beat them up. He doesn’t even know they died. The adults never tell him what happened to them. In the books he constantly compares himself to Peter and that “i’m just like peter” and he hates himself for being violent. Did they not put this into the movie??

    If this is what was gotten out of the movie then i’m really disappointed in how they depict the movie. As of yet I haven’t seen the movie because it hasn’t released in the US yet, but some of these reviews depress me…either people aren’t getting the vision, or they really did a crappy job on the movie. 😦

    • The movie makes you feel “nothing” re: this quandary. Flat performances, an epilogue that feels…”Starship Troopers” silly.

    • Jon Jonson says:

      Just saw a screening of this movie over the weekend. I’d recommend seeing it and deciding on your own whether or not you “feel” anything. I’m a fan of the book and I was not disappointed. Asa was great as Ender.
      It has a bit of a rocky start, though.

  3. violamom42 says:

    Mr. Moore, you clearly have no understanding of the source material. Ender’s Game is NOT a “YA novel”, but one of the most lauded Sci Fi books of the last quarter century. Nor are we supposed to be “thrilled” or “have fun” with this Game. IT’S A TRAGEDY with a tremendously bittersweet ending, for cryin’ out loud. You show far better understanding in your article on Asa Butterfield, rightly giving him credit for an outstanding portrayal of a tremendously complex character. Too bad you couldn’t display such generosity here. According to this piece, there is absolutely no redeeming quality anywhere to be found aside from it being “well-cast”. Gee, how wonderful. I guess it’s more fun to write a snarky review, whether or not it’s a fair assessment of the actual film. Whatever.

    • It’s a teen’s novel. Sorry if you take that as some sort of personal affront. Maybe picking up something a little more adult and truly “Classic” in nature will show you the difference.

      • If you really think it’s a teen’s novel, I wonder what you make of Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind. How do they fit into that tidy little teen framework?

      • The other books in the same series? Listen, ask a serious question. And maybe change your email address to something other than “Elf Prince.”

      • Yeah, the other books in the same series. Where most of the major characters are middle aged scientists and priests. Based on that reaction, I’ll take it to be the case that you’re wholly unfamiliar with them. It’s worth pointing out that Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead are the only two novels by the same author to win both Hugo and Nebula awards in back to back years.

        And I like “elf prince”, thank you very much. If I was concerned about other internet denizens using it to make inferences about my age or my literary tastes (or anything else really), I would have ditched it 10 years and 55 pages of Google results ago.

      • It was a rhetorical question, as “I cannot believe someone who calls himself Elfprince just asked me if the series changed genres between books.”

  4. Eric says:

    Well, Ender’s Game is old enough that it does sort of read like young adult fiction, but then what older popular fiction doesn’t? Harold Robbins maybe… Lol. Anyway, the YA aspect of the early Ender’s universe novels is probably a good thing because it allows the author to deal with the genuinely interesting issues and conflicts of all those books in a more straightforward manner instead of wasting time with flimsy token adult themes that so much SF and popular fiction in general seems compelled to include. This was an early book for Mr. Card and there is a noticeable difference in temperament that takes place after this book, especially in his Ender’s Shadow series as the characters have to confront a more solidified political world as adults more or less. Peter established the most complex side to the later novels and ends up being by far the most interesting and of them all. It was a genius move by Card to make full use of him.

  5. Daniel says:

    ” For many years, I have gratefully watched as Ender’s Game has grown in popularity, especially among school-age readers. Though it was never intended as a young-adult novel, it has been embraced by many in that age group…” – Orson Scott Card, in the introduction to Ender’s Shadow.
    Ender’s Game is the simplest book in the series, along with Ender’s Shadow. The other books in the series feature older versions of the characters, along with deeper philosophical thought and a broader world. Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow serve as an introduction to the parallel plotlines of the Ender Saga and the Shadow Saga. Effectively, the story grows more “adult” as the character’s age.

    • Mormon sci-fi writer? Kiddie characters? Squeaky clean, sexless, moralistic? “Young Adult” Defined.

      • So you are saying your opinion of the movie is framed by the original books author’s religious opinions?

      • Eric says:

        Morals??? How dare he! Lol. So almost everything written before 1960 is young adult fiction. Good to know. Lol.

      • No, but everybody who clings to a book they embraced as a child needs to understand that most people outgrow and mature beyond YA. And some don’t. More interesting analysis of the themes of the book are here.

      • Lisa says:

        I truly don’t understand your argument here. Mormon Sci-Fi writer – none of his beliefs are imposed in this novel/movie whatsoever, and I don’t understand how religion causes the movie to be YA. Kiddie characters – god forbid a story centers around kids that’s meant for an adult audience because that’s never been done before. Lord of the Flies was so squeaky clean with all those children playing duck duck goose and sodomizing a pig. To Kill a Mockingbird, granted a lot of adults are in it too but a lot of the plot is the children interacting with adults and understanding adult situations. Just as in Ender’s Game, the children are learning military situations that they shouldn’t really be seeing for another 10-15 years. Sexless – just what?? of course it’s going to be sexless. Not all movies need a sex scene. Where in this mythical scroll of adult novel requirements does it say there needs to be sex? Moralistic – because no other book teaches morals meant for adults teaches morals at all.
        “but barely suggests a mind that is broadening in spite of the narrow, kill-or-be-killed focus of his training.” – That’s why this is an introductory story to an entire series. We can’t have the main character going through complete character development within the first book. I understand that most viewers aren’t going to know that but it was a call the writers had to make if they were going to continue the series.
        “selected to be a leader because Young Adult fiction desperately needs another “chosen one.” – You even stated in your review the book was originally written in the 80’s -which precedes most “chosen one” narratives known today yet you talk about it like it was just written.

      • Narrow, conservative, old-fashioned, lacking edge, ’50s vintage. Stephenie Meyer without the heavy breathing.

    • Eric says:

      Hmmm… I have to disagree with you Roger. I think most people actually don’t outgrow and mature beyond what they mined from their young adult fiction, or at least this is what they escape to when they realize that “adult” life is mostly empty routine and inconclusive prescribed endeavors. Almost every movie is YA in the context of that Salon article regardless of what a movie might purport to be, and this is why super hero movies, SF, romance and all the rest of the “unrealistic” themes are what keeps Hollywood afloat.

      All that article is really saying is that most fiction is a carefully orchestrated recipe of emotional manipulation, and not in truth an objective display of ideas. True, but that’s what makes any story or movie with some degree of provocative ideas more unique than the rest of the purely emotional warble that’s out there, because at least it gives us something to think about while we get our emotional fix.

      And as a side note, to quote the article:
      “Despite Card’s narrative bushwa about them (children) being somehow more adaptable to warfare, children are simply developmentally incapable of exercising the judgment required to command an army.”
      …unlike George Bush Jr. Lol!

  6. Tracy Lee says:

    The Big Question (for me, anyway) – did they keep the story line of Valentine & Peter in the movie, of them creating the fictional political characters that debated using children in battle school on the ‘net? This is really something important to the story and after seeing the Behind the Scenes on HBO I’m worried that this whole side to the book never made it to the screen. It looks way too much like an action movie and lacking the political commentary about training children (starting at age 6) to be killers. The book is so much more about the internal turmoil Ender has with becoming this person, as well as questioning the society that is forcing children into battle. Please tell me it doesn’t have a Hollywood Happy Ending!

  7. freezycold says:

    My friends and I saw this last night. We all agreed it was the worst movie we’ve ever seen. Absolute nonsense. We thought it was going to be a servicable sci-fi I guess from the incredibly misleading trailer (which actually has a bunch of scenes that aren’t even in the final movie). Nope. It was rubbish. Awful script, obvious “twist,” stupid A to B plot, tryhard Harry Potter type moments, loads of nonsense pretend physics, terrible child actors, tons of continuity issues, massive leaps of convenience, ropey special effects, a seemingly huge staff shortage in their military or whatever and a potbelly on Harrison Ford.

    I can’t understand why it’s getting such good reviews everywhere.

    • Eric says:

      You and your friends went to go see this… on Wednesday night? Give me a break, you didn’t go see anything. Besides, if this was the worst movie you’ve ever seen then you seriously haven’t seen enough movies to say how good anything is or isn’t..

      • It had free sneak previews Wed. night. So yes, she could have seen it there. Freebie moviegoers do not pick movies, necessarily, they’re dying to see. So they’re not inclined to love something they’ve been looking forward to. Because they weren’t looking forward to it. That’s also the difference between fans and critics. We see films that aren’t necessarily things we’re dying to see.

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