Are you doing your part? You know, by breeding bullying jerks to save the human race?
The near future: a spacefaring alien race called the Formics attack the Earth in a bid for colonization, but the brave sacrifice of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) halts the invasion and saves the planet. Fifty years later, cries of “never forget” still echo through the futuristic culture; gifted children have been tasked with a brutal competition in both body and brains to become the next Battle Commander capable of defeating the alien scourge and prevent what happened to Earth from ever happening again. In a race against the clock, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks he’s found the savior of mankind in a boy name Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), but the boy keeps displaying pesky hints of bothersome morals that may prevent the child from being as ruthless as the vengeful adults in charge all hope he can be.
With regard to author Orson Scott Card’s views regarding tolerance, Ender’s Game is interestingly hinged on the idea that a little tolerance goes a long way, that “how we win matters.” In a fictional but not-unthinkable culture where pre-tweens are pressured into war school with hopes of becoming the next savior of the human race, this is the opposite of the modern American education mentality that “competition is wrong” and there should be no winners or losers lest a single human psyche be damaged. What holds back the one-two punch of incredible visuals and intense acting is a muddled ending that feels too underwhelming to have the impact intended, a Kill Bill lesson that “some things, once you do, they can never be undone.”
The problem is two-fold. The ending lacks impact and perceived originality, neither of which is the story’s fault. Ender’s oh-my-God moment falls a bit flat; with a story pushing the hero to be a leader and a protagonist pushing him to be destroyer, his realization of what he’s capable and what he’s done doesn’t work. Also, the aliens are, well, giant instectoid bugs and not different enough from Starship Troopers to stop thinking of catch phrases like “The only good bug is a dead bug!” Even the propaganda posters feel like Robert A. Heinlein ripoffs; familiar audiences may have trouble seeing the alien home world and thinking anything other than “It’s an ugly planet; it’s a bug planet!”
All that said, here’s what was incredible to watch. Watching Ender go from bullied to battle commander is empowering; his tactics in navigating social circles at a military school to give everyone what they want while still taking for himself is masterful, and Asa Butterfield sells it well. The zero-G combat sequences and battles are amazing as are the starship battle sequences; console and computer video games don’t feel this real or immerse yet. While Gravity looked incredible showcasing how space travel looks now, Ender’s Game presents a beautiful future to look forward to, alien invaders be damned. The music and sound fit the story well, but I could swear that the opening battle sequence between jet fighters and alien attackers was riddled with laser and gunner sound effects lovingly lifted from Flash Gordon (I think we can safely blame Seth MacFarlane for this).
Those who remember how every US citizen was feeling after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack can attest to the power of coming together but also power of demonizing an enemy for a common cause. Also, with the complex video games of today putting players young and old safely into combat zones and obliterating everything in sight for points and bragging rights – all without any emotional or physical consequence – the only thing missing is a global-scale terrorist attack to be used as an excuse to crank up the war machine. The post battle ending also feels too much like an epilogue; it’s supposed to send Ender off in a new direction, but it feels both abbreviated and rushed – a tack-on seed for the inevitable sequel and the potential franchise. Although people who loved the book will find much to love here – it really is a good movie – the potential impact is too soft for the epic it aspires to be.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)