Ender's Game has been sold to us as something of a large science fiction spectacle, a film filled with space battles and characters who would look good in Happy Meal toy form. The trailers, which I've been forced to sit through millions of times lately, feature lots of huge battleships and swarms of villainous space gnats blowing up and shooting each other with hyperactive incomprehensibility. But that's not really what's going on in Ender's Game. All those things are present, but they are more or less hypothetical or footage from the past.
This is really just a military training story within a science fiction shell. Having read the original book, I've been curious how Ender's Game was going to square the novel's prioritization of Ender's struggle with pre-teen military politics over any actual space fighting. I don't know if I'd still like Orson Scott Card's book as much as I used to, but the appeal for me was its blunt meanness. Say what you will about Card's politics, he never shied away from the brutality that would come with a ship full of militant child geniuses, all vying for top dog status. Hood tries to bring some of this out, but his Diet Coke version of Ender's ascension through the ranks fails for several reasons. For one, these kids all feel older than they should. And two, very few of them come off as dangerous. Fewer still seem capable of the kind of intelligence the premise avers. Ender's struggle really isn't much of a struggle here.
But while we miss out on seeing Card's space version of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, we do get something unique by current Hollywood standards. This is not an action film, and even with all rough edges filed down, it's fun to see a leader take shape and develop his crew. The battle cadets learn to be badasses by taking battle cadet classes and playing Laser Tag in a big room with no gravity. The intricacies of what's going on in that room go over my head, but it's fun to watch anyway.
There are other pleasing elements as well. Harrison Ford gives a real performance as Colonel Gruffy McGruffGruff, the gruff military man who doesn't mind ruining Ender's soul if it means saving the human race. He's well matched by Viola Davis' Major Emotion Lotion, a bleeding heart liberal who wishes Gruff would go easier on the kids. I'm being facetious, but both are great. Ford in particular supplies his character with unspoken layers you wouldn't expect from an actor who so often phones in his performances. Ben Kingsley's the film's obvious MVP, though. But you probably knew that the moment you saw his face tattoos.
Asa Butterfield makes a wholly unconvincing military leader, but that's probably in keeping with Ender's entire point, though it's not something that translates well from book to screen. Ender's voice cracks when he tries to yell. Butterfield delivers his narration (in the form of letters written to his sister) like a twelve year old Edward Norton. Probably the most memorable and shocking moment of the entire film comes as we see Butterfield shirtless. He looks like a PSA against anorexia. My audience responded with uncomfortable laughter. Then Ender beats up a bully, and the laughter grew.
And while I frequently had no idea what was going on in the action sequences, they have a genuinely interesting execution. People can say it all looks like a video game, but Ender's Game kind of preempts that point by featuring a few sequences that actually take place in a surreal video game.
Ender's Game is nowhere near the disaster provided by Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but while never all the way boring, it doesn't really grab you either. There are commendable things going on, but even at its best it fails to generate much emotion or excitement.