Lost in space

Sci-fi war-game novel doesn’t hold up in film version

Game Boy.

Game Boy.

Ender’s Game
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford and Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by Gavin Hood. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 2.0

As some of his public comments denouncing same-sex relationships/marriage indicate, author Orson Scott Card appears to be some sort of pigheaded loser. That doesn’t keep his 1985 novel Ender’s Game and its sequels from being fairly prophetic and intuitive when it comes to modern technology—it just makes him kind of a big dick in the now.

OK, now the movie review:

In the film version of Card’s story, the protagonist is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a genius boy and master of futuristic video games and strategies. He’s targeted by a colonel (crusty and craggy Harrison Ford) as the savior of the human race, somebody who can save Earth from a second attack by an alien insect species called the Formics.

Ender enters into a training program in which he is secretly fast-tracked to the point of commanding his own ragtag group of teens, including Petra Arkanian (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), through elaborate exercises. One involves a zero-gravity room where they get to play laser tag with paralyzing rays, and the other is a large video game where they perform alien-species-annihilation scenarios.

The movie has some impressive special effects and some great ideas at its core. What it doesn’t have is an engaging performance by its central actor. Butterfield just doesn’t cut it as Ender, opting for a mostly quiet intensity that results in boring stretches. Steinfeld acts circles around him.

Also, something about the film feels abbreviated. I can’t help but think this franchise would’ve fared better as an HBO series, or some other network miniseries. The finale feels tacked on, super condensed, and rushed. The character of Ender is required to switch emotional modes in a way that is too quick, and it feels false.

Card’s “One who can save us all!” premise, besides its biblical ramifications, also acted as a definitive prelude to such current phenomena as the Harry Potter series and The Matrix. The master-gamer aspect of Ender was conceptualized when modern man was just saying goodbye to ColecoVision and ushering in the age of Nintendo. The first PlayStation was nearly a decade away. So, I’m not denying that Ender’s Game was a masterfully intuitive notion as a novel. I’m just not impressed with the muddled effort director Gavin Hood hath wrought. The movie, although visually breathtaking at times, is a flat, joyless affair. I couldn’t help but think of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers—another avenue for bug-like aliens attacking Earth—and how much fun that was. Ender’s Game has a lot of moping and routine teen angst in it.

Ford is actually my favorite thing about the movie. He manages to mix in an occasionally warm—even funny—moment as the determined engineer of Ender’s fate. There’s plenty of that old, raspy late-career Ford, but also just a touch of Han Solo. (Watching him here, I found myself rooting for a deal with J.J. Abrams soon that would have Ford reprise his Star Wars role in the upcoming trilogy. His work here would act as a nice bridge back to that franchise.)

On the more confusing side, Viola Davis is on hand as Major Gwen Anderson, some sort of counselor/protector of Ender, constantly at Ford’s side and telling him his plan sucks. It seems like Hood (and even Davis) wasn’t quite sure of the arc for this character who virtually disappears for long stretches of the film.

Ender’s Game is not a bad movie. It has many respectable aspects, but it is a movie marbled with dullness. It’s supposed to be the start of a franchise, but I have a sinking feeling the franchise ends here for now.