Game of drones

“Someone please get me out of this dreadfully cliché film.”

“Someone please get me out of this dreadfully cliché film.”

Rated 2.0

For years now, the trend in special-effects-heavy, nine-figure-budget, brand-name tentpole Hollywood entertainment has run toward pompous, self-important bloat, led largely by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy.

In a headline-grazing quest for topicality amid all the explosions and misanthropy, Nolan’s Batman films employed a “teach the controversy” approach long favored by birthers, truthers, intelligent designers and other lying dogs. Depending on the scene, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises was a metaphor for either the tea-party movement or the Occupy movement. Never mind that they’re political opposites—just throw them all into the mix, and proceed to the next mass-murder set piece.

Writer-director Gavin Hood (a surprise 2005 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner for Tsotsi, who then went on to make Hollywood dreck such as Rendition and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) doesn’t stray far from that financially proven formula in adapting the 1985 Orson Scott Card novel Ender’s Game to the big screen. It’s a schlocky sci-fi film that wants to bring up weighty concepts like genocide, neofascism, domestic surveillance, and technological dehumanization specifically to avoid dealing with them.

Asa Butterfield plays the title character Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a child genius who is as ferocious as he is precocious. He lives in a future world decimated from repeated attacks by an insectlike race known as the Formics, and derisively referred to as the “Buggers.” Determined to prevent any future attacks, the world leaders have established a brutal training program to transform video-game-obsessed kids into hyperaggressive military masterminds.

Even though he is a decadent “third child” in a society that allows only two per family, Ender excels as a cadet, coming to the attention of a dour, monotone military leader played by Harrison Ford. Thankfully, hard evidence exists that Ford was once an enjoyable screen presence, because this officious, possibly sociopathic commander is just another in a long line of glower-and-growl jobs that Ford has phoned in over the last couple decades.

After proving himself in the lower ranks, Ender is promoted to “Battle Camp,” an interstellar boot camp where kids are separated into teams and forced to square off in military-style “games,” in which the strategy mostly involves sacrificing your own teammates. This is where a bolder film would suck the viewer into its universe, but Hood wants to celebrate the exploits of his film’s junior techno-fascists, and then solemnly wring his hands to show penance.

We get a cross-section of war-film clichés and teen-lit clichés interspersed with zero-gravity laser fights. The sociopolitical context is reduced to a series of buzz catchphrases regarding “unsustainable population growth,” “war crimes” and the potential for “diplomatic solutions.”

Much of Ender’s Game feels strangely anonymous, a grab bag of loose ends borrowed from more notable films and franchises. There are glaring similarities to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, with none of that movie’s nihilistic satire. The “game” that Ender and his teenage peers are forced to play looks an awful lot like Quidditch in outer space. And no one who has ever heard of Ray Bradbury or Kurt Vonnegut will have their mind blown by the third-act twists.

That contextless anonymity extends to the characters in Ender’s Game—we never feel anything for them, because we never get to know them. The performances don’t help fill in any blanks—Butterfield brings a necessary intensity to the lead role, but the supporting work is comically stiff and formal, especially the thoroughly functionary female characters played by Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin and Viola Davis.

None of this is to say that the film doesn’t have its formal pleasures—the special effects are remarkable, the design of the Battle Camp space station is breathtaking, and the scope of the battles is realized on a grand scale. There is a seething ambition present in Ender’s Game that might be enough for some people, although it’s an ambition that is not only unrealized, but largely not even attempted.