30 October 2013 | moviexclusive
Don't go in expecting typical young-adult fare. "Ender's Game" is an engaging and visually entertaining adaption of a classic sci-fi novel
With a rumoured US$100 million production budget, "Ender's Game" could be written off as one of the latest in a growing line of high-budget young adult flicks, which its co-producing company Summit Entertainment probably hopes it will be. A more interesting fact is that it's also one of the first films whereby one of the other co-producers is James Cameron's special-effects firm Digital Domain, responsible for creating most of the futuristic sets and backdrops. But visual effects, even in a sci-fi movie, can only go so far in capturing audiences. The source material's acclaim far exceeds that of recent YA successes like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games": Orson Scott Card's sci-fi novel won both the prestigious Nebula Award and the Hugo Award in 1985 and 1986 respectively, and is also recommended reading for the US Marine Corps.
Attempting to give sufficient credit to such a classic novel is director and writer Gavin Hood, best remembered for the unimpressive "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", which received a lukewarm response from critics and audiences alike. This time though, the pieces look to be in place for a box office success. Beyond the lauded source material, he's also got a stellar cast, led by 16-year-old Asa Butterfield, who effectively wields his expressive, bright blue eyes to convey a contradictory mix of childlike vulnerability and a preternatural ruthlessness. These are useful tools for portraying Ender Wiggin, a brilliant boy-genius recruited by the military in a world that is still recovering from the aftermath of an attack by insect-like aliens. The government is somehow convinced that training children barely on the cusp of adolescence in the ways of war will ensure future victory. Employing a combination of relentless physical training, psychological manipulation and social isolation in Battle School, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) are looking to sieve out a suitable leader.
Ender appears to have the ideal traits, a result of both nature and nurture. On the one hand his intellect and tactical instinct are innate gifts. On the other, a troubled family background consisting of ambivalent parents, a psychotic older brother and a compassionate sister creates a detached demeanour and an understanding that mercy must be shelved in exchange for a thorough victory. Graff, convinced that Ender is 'The One', pulls no stops in his training and quickly puts him in command of his own platoon.
The inter-team battles resemble laser tag in a spherical zero-gravity court, lit in blue neon and dotted with blocks. Ender establishes himself as a leader worth his salt; crushing enemies along the way and swallowing the resultant guilt until an ill-fated showdown with a belligerent team leader Bonzo (Moises Arias) one day throws him off- course. Questioning whether the toll on his psyche is worth all this training to ultimately become a killer, Ender quits, only to change his mind after a rather brief talk with the one person he loves most in the world, his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). He moves on to advanced training in Command School under revered war veteran Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). The script takes on a more existential tone after this point, leading up to the climactic final "game" where the theme of morality / oppression in war takes centre-stage.
The pacing may be slightly uneven but the film moves fast enough to retain your attention throughout. Visually, most scenes are filtered with bright electric blue lights and warm amber hues set against black space, which feels familiar and reminiscent of "Tron: Legacy" – both films share the same production designers, Sean Haworth and Ben Procter. Coming on the heels of Alfonso Cuarón's astoundingly beautiful "Gravity" doesn't do "Ender's Game" any favours. That's not to say that it isn't aesthetically impressive on its own; the glossy and clinical sets are believably futuristic and highly pleasing to the eye.
Acting-wise, Ford leverages on his grandfatherly gravitas in portraying a man who is convinced that the end he has in mind will justify any means. Alongside him, Butterfield ably holds his own, following his adorable turn in "Hugo" with another praiseworthy performance and creating a tense dynamic with Ford that hits the boiling point in the concluding scenes. Abigail Breslin, unfortunately, is underused. Movie adaptations of books invariably result in the loss of certain elements: While Ender's siblings are keenly-developed and complex characters in the novel, the lack of screen time and development in the movie render them as mere placeholders.