Ender’s Game, writer/director Gavin Hood’s adaptation of the revered Orson Scott Card novel, has much in common with Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion from earlier this year. Both sci-fi films bolster an intriguing premise with creative special effects and production design, yet do these aspects a disservice through ultimately hollow content and dramatic misfires. In Hood’s case, with a familiar text and more prestigious cast at his disposal, his end results seems like the greater blunder. His rendering of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) and his key role in the military’s sneaky strategy against alien invaders certainly looks great and moves well enough, but is marred by such mediocrity that you almost wish the filmmaker could have another shot.
Thanks to battle imagery that will be repeated numerous times and expository narration of information that’s soon revealed more naturally, it’s learned that humankind defeated an alien race called the Formics 70 years ago. Fearful of the invaders’ return, the military have since educated children via war games so that Earth will be prepared when the Formics eventually retaliate. Ender’s Game is essentially an advancement through these institutional ranks upon the shoulders of young Mr. Wiggin, a journey of varying results. Good or bad, and whether on his home planet with his for-the-cause family or up at the galactic training academy, there’s the sense that only half the requisite information is being given, and that half often feels like a lecture. Though the film’s overall objective is clear, as is that of nearly any given scene, the roots remain below ground, yielding frequently frustrating results.
Never is this shielded sense more true than in the plentiful war games. During these simulations, esoteric terminology and strategy abound with little foundation, not distracting from the current action yet making it difficult to get more than a surface grasp on the young soldiers or their thought processes. In these advanced Capture the Flag exercises or at the commands of warships where those same strategies are enacted, the futuristic machinery is pleasing to the eye but merely means to cheap excitement. Further undermining these scenes is Ender’s unconvincing rise from pariah to the toast of his fellow cadets. The exchanges between his peers barely suggest that their minds have changed about him, but when the actors delivering these lines do so with a tin ear, the material never stands a chance.
Continuing his ho-hum year, Harrison Ford adds minimal gravitas as Colonel Graff while Viola Davis does little better as his sidekick Major Anderson. Perhaps rubbing off on their less-accomplished co-stars, these and other performances feel cold and robotic, which appears to be the point in this harsh, war-driven future, but comes off as amateurish instead of calculated. Leading this younger set, Butterfield shows that he’s advanced little from his lackluster debut in Hugo, Abigail Breslin is given the weak part of Ender’s sister Valentine, and with her stunted turn as lone female cadet Petra (plus the bomb that is Romeo & Juliet), Hailee Steinfeld’s abilities outside of a Coen Brothers film come into question. Ben Kingley’s Maori commander Mazer Rackham is the lone exception to this stilted monotony, his tattooed-face, piercing stare, and sparse dialogue setting him apart from the surrounding bores. Ender’s Game needs more stark examples of his type to fill its dramatic voids, though when a cast’s greatest asset feels like an anomaly, that happy accident requires others like it to be anything truly of note.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.
Ender’s Game is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.