Review: Ender’s Game

Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) plays war games in space
Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) plays war games in space

Ender’s Game presents me with something of a problem. This is a film for children. The stars are predominantly children. It’s about children. The plot is pretty childish. I am a 30-year-old man. I don’t have children. I don’t really relate to them. How then do I review this movie? Who is my audience here? Is it the youngsters who are going to want to see this film, or is it the parents trying to decide if this is something they want either their children to see independently, or something that they’re prepared to sit through with them?

By posing the question, I’ve kind of answered it for myself, because the answer is the same across the board; don’t watch this movie. Do something else instead. If you’re reading this and you’re 12 years old, go out and play, even if it’s raining. Because Ender’s Game is just terrible.

Set after a near-apocalyptic conflict with an alien race, Gavin Hood’s film offers us a future in which Earth’s military, in all it’s wisdom, decides to prepare for any future attacks by getting a bunch of kids to play war games; specifically a zero gravity iteration of what was called British Bulldogs when I was in the playground. Basically, get to the other team’s safety zone without them smashing the crap out of you. The kids all seem extremely eager to get into the program which will give them a shot at this. Enter, err, Ender (Asa Butterfield), a scrawny young fellow who is afforded Neo-from-The-Matrix status from scene one by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) because otherwise we’d be here all fricking day, supposedly.

Ford is one of only a handful of adults here, and will be a draw for many because, well, it’s Harrison Ford in a science fiction film, isn’t it? Let’s get this clear immediately; Ender’s Game is not Blade Runner or Star Wars. In fact, next to this Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull looks pretty good. All you’re going to get from Ford here is a Fed-Exed slew of exposition and second-rate mentoring. The dial flutters between mildly grumpy and mildly smug. That’s all he needs for a character with no actual character to speak of.

Elsewhere there’s a solid if unremarkable turn from Viola Davis as someone for Harrison Ford to talk to, an oddball turn from Nonso Anozie (who seems to be auditioning for Sesame Street) as a drill sergeant and Ben Kingsley who, bless him, treats this as seriously as anything else, consumate professional that he is. That’s it for grown-ups, the rest is kids.

I’d feel bad being overly critical of the child actors, because they’re just kids, y’know? So that’s the end of their coverage. The best I can say is that Asa Butterfield is definitely in the film a lot, and to remind everyone how good Hailee Steinfeld was in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Remember that good film?

And…

Oh my, I’m getting weary. Where to begin with this mess?

The plot, such as it is, is pieced together from the pieces of other sci-fi yarns, which is fine to a degree – does anyone expect a children’s film to revolutionise the genre? No. It suffers, however, from the sheer stubbornness on the writer’s part to shoehorn the characters into scenarios that don’t make any sense when given even the most cursory of scrutiny. Even youngsters prone to questioning the logic of a situation (and I know kids enough to know that, yes, those questions will come) will surely have a tough time swallowing the abundance of horseshit that holds this story together.

With its wonky mixed messages of morality, an unhealthy preoccupation with martyrdom and some questionable bullying ethics, Ender’s Game ultimately boils down to the rather typical tropes of the sports competition movie (this team vs that team, underdogs vs the tried and tested winners, et cetera, et cetera) before squeezing in a lengthy stretch in which, essentially, you’re watching a bunch of kids play Space Invaders with fancier graphics.

Adults will see the Starship Troopers ‘twist’ in the narrative coming like Halley’s Comet, while the method through which the alien intelligence attempts to communicate with young Ender is, frankly, surreal. No matter which way you look at it, Ender’s Game is flimsy nonsense even by sci-fi’s nutty standards. It’s also two full hours long, which is a good half an hour longer than anyone would realistically hope to spend on something like this.

As an adult, this was a pretty terrible experience. Certainly the cinematic nadir of the year so far. The problem isn’t particularly a technical one. Hood’s film at least achieves on all the basic levels from photography and sound to production design and whatnot. The problem is in the blueprints. This is a terrible idea, and no amount of proficient assemblage is going to disguise that.

I haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s book on which it is based. I hope that it works better in that medium. Presumably it has proven popular enough for this film to get bankrolled. But as a film, it’s just bad. Adults will become bored pretty quickly. And kids? I tried to picture myself at 12, being confronted with Ender’s Game (it’s being released here in the UK with a 12A rating). I think I’d have asked if we could watch Jurassic Park again. Or something in which Harrison Ford didn’t look so tired all the time. Or I’d have gone around to a friend’s house to watch things we shouldn’t have been, like Alien or The Silence Of The Lambs.

So the kids are out, and the adults will be rolling their eyes by the end. Who’s left? No one. This film is for nobody.

Score:  0.5

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