“Ender’s Game” fulfills every expectation instilled by its terrible trailer. The movie is cold and overwrought, and despite all of its beautifully rendered pop-pop-pow video game imagery, it’s surprisingly dull. The conclusion is a brazen cheat, and the presumptuous sequel setup at the end is the scariest thing in the film.
The story was distilled by writer-director Gavin Hood from Orson Scott Card‘s 1985 sci-fi novel. It’s set in a militaristic human future, 50 years after an invasion by insectoid aliens, called Formics, who killed millions and were only barely repelled. Although the Formics haven’t been heard from since, earthling authorities still anticipate another assault and are cooking up a pre-emptive attack to prevent it. A new combat force is being trained, composed entirely of teenagers (because kids, with their video game skills, are better at “integrating complex data”).
Among these recruits is a boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, star of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”). Ender is irritatingly aloof, and his fellow draftees at the orbital training station don’t like him much at first. But a girl named Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) takes an instant shine to him, and top dog Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks he has heroic possibilities. “My father trained horses,” Graff says. “I know a winner when I see one.”
The movie’s action is composed almost entirely of training simulations, with the conscripts tumbling around in zero gravity, practicing battle formations and honing their space pistol skills. These sequences are executed with impressive digital artistry; they’re inventively constructed and shot with a razor-edge clarity. But as the movie slogs on and they keep recurring, the wall-to-wall CGI creates a feeling of airless claustrophobia. We want to see some real Formics blown away, and we keep waiting — and waiting — for the big war to begin.
The movie is also weakened by a structural oddity. Hood keeps cutting away from the kids to cramped scenes with Graff and his subordinate, Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis), endlessly nattering about Ender’s mental state and strategic capabilities. The picture slumps woefully every time this happens, and the director’s penchant for TV-style close-ups grows oppressive. (Ford’s performance, which is heavy on snarling and seething, would have benefited from a little distance.)
The story’s themes are both worthy (the use of an outside threat to justify increasing social militarization) and familiar (a young man’s journey from underdog to world savior). But they’re overshadowed by the blockbuster imperative for big noisy action, and the digital tumult leaves the actors little room to move. Nonso Anozie gives the film’s most likable performance, channeling R. Lee Ermey to play a bellowing drill sergeant, named Dap; and Abigail Breslin contributes welcome moments of warmth as Ender’s sister, Valentine (with whom he shares an unfortunate inclination toward empathy). But Butterfield has been directed to express little more than resentment and grim determination, and I wasn’t sure what to make of Ben Kingsley, who pops up toward the end as a legendary warrior with a head full of tattoos (a tribute to his Maori forebears!).
This is a good-looking movie, but it’s hard to imagine who might feel a need for more of it. At one point, Ender says of the Formics, “What if they could talk to us?” Does anyone really want to know?