If you’ve seen a trailer for Ender’s Game and have never read Orson Scott Card’s series of books featuring the title character, you’d be inclined to think it’s a film pitting a character played by Harrison Ford against aliens- yet again. Whilst Ford makes a good narrator for the trailers, the story is about Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, played by 16-year old Asa Butterfield. Ender is a young, socially awkward yet totally brilliant boy when it comes to devising battle scenarios. See kids, in the future, all those hours of video gaming lead to a ticket into International Fleet’s Battle School giving you the chance to fight real live aliens someday!
The ‘launchie’ (cadet) Ender’s behaviour and abilities at Battle School put him on a fast track to become the next Mazer Rackham (played by Ben Kingsley), a legendary military leader and Ender’s idol who led the first war against the bug-like alien creatures known as the Formics. The boy spent his youth analysing Rackham’s manoeuvres and strategies during the previous battle in an effort to understand the threat better. Col Rackham, alongside Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff oversee Ender’s training in Command School- both men are certain that Ender is the one leader who can save all of humanity from annihilation. No pressure, then!
Early on we learn that Ender has an older brother and an older sister, both of whom have previously washed out of Battle School for different reasons. Ender’s older brother, Peter, has a myriad of anger issues and seems like a sociopath who enjoys watching others suffer; Ender’s sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin) is the polar opposite- she is too caring and compassionate. The military doesn’t seem to like either of those extremes; they need someone like Ender who can blend the two emotional elements- analyse a given situation and come up with an outcome that achieves the goal in the best possible way. This is illustrated perfectly when Ender gets into a fight with a bully in school and he not only knocks the other student down to the ground but he goes a step further. Later, when Ender is asked why he sent another student to the hospital, Ender’s response is a simple, yet chilling: “I wanted to win that fight, and all the fights after it.” It’s an answer that Col Graff greatly approves of as he prods Ender further on into his journey.
Most of Battle School’s action sequences take place inside something called the Battle Room. As can be guessed from the title, it’s a room where battle takes place. In the book, the room is essentially a huge black box, not to be so boring in the film, the Battle Room retains its massive size, but instead of a box it resembles a glass orb-like structure allowing the audience to essentially see Earth and out into space as the kids battle it out for the win. The Hunger Games in space it is not; the kids don’t die when shooting at each other, they just get zapped into immobility with seemingly little side effects. The next step up, the Command School, is situated on a planet taken over by Earthlings from Formics during the last battle, which explains the mix of alien and human elements present in scenes. The Command School is where Ender leads his team controlling drones and weapons in simulations involving attacks by Formics. These vary in difficulty as training progresses.
Through Ender, several key issues are explored, amongst them: bullying, leadership and compassion/empathy. These elements also make Ender into a very complex character and it can be interesting to watch how he deals and reacts to situations thrown his way throughout the film. Psychologically, Ender is definitely an interesting subject of study. His name alone foreshadows what’s to come and perhaps tells us why he is so special – he’s there to put an end to not just one war, but to all wars after it.
Does the film deliver? Not quite. If you’re an adult and have even a remote connection with the military, it’s hard to take kids seriously when they are trying to be all tough and military-like. The jargon, strategy sessions and even a scene where a team breaks into Army-like song as they march towards the Battle Room, leaves the viewer chuckling and thinking ‘aww that’s cute/adorable’ instead of taking it more seriously as one would when watching grownups go through the exact same routines. At the same time, the realisation of a future where kids are fighting wars, can be chilling.
The special effects are effective for most part and seem to work in aiding the story progress. The gaming environment Ender interacts with in his off hours is another element that works and is helpful in showing the audience Ender’s mental state as he connects all the dots and decides what to do next. It almost feels like a different world, and in a way it is. There are certain elements reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report whenever characters onscreen manipulate and interact with screens and tablets, especially in the scenes in Command School simulations. No doubt some elements, especially those of the space battle scenarios, were created specifically to make use of the 3D technology of cinemas. But for the fans of science fiction and special effects-ridden films, Ender’s Game effects don’t leave much of an impression. They’ve seen better.
Don’t get me wrong- the film has its moments, some of which get the audience chuckling (“it’s basic rocket science, people!” line for example) other moments excite, horrify and maybe even amaze, but there are almost no breathtaking and surprising elements throughout the story. The fictional reality of Ender’s Game is shattered every time you remember you’re essentially watching a bunch of kids play games, even if those games come with a heavier price tag on a psychological level. It’s still somewhat tantamount to watching your favourite sports team practice instead of play against another team.
The final battle almost makes up for the earlier lull and the score definitely adds to the suspense leading to the big reveal. Probably the only moment in the film that comes close to ‘jaw dropping’ and maybe even horrifying when you think about it. The ending, on the other hand, seems to fall flat on its face and fizzle out, but it does leave room for a possible sequel to come should Ender’s Game do well at the box office.
Ender’s Game is directed by Gavin Wood and stars Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley. It releases in the UAE on 31st October 2013. Please visit ME-Movies for a list of showtimes and cinemas showing the movie.