Release Date: 25th October 2013
Running Time: 114 mins
Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
Child soldiers, drone warfare, military ethics and genocide; with content like this, Ender’s Game is surely the heaviest children’s film in recent memory. Set at an unspecified time in the future, Earth has unified in the face of the threat of alien invasion. With their limber minds, undeveloped morality and mad videogame skillz, children are the perfect candidates for an intensive training regime to find humanity’s next great military leader and strategist.
Fifty years after the insectoid alien invaders known as “the Formics” were narrowly repelled by a suicide attack, military leaders fear the potential of a second invasion which would destroy all of humanity. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a young student at a military training school who shows all the hallmarks of leadership. Whisked away to an off-world battle school by the gruff Colonel Graff (played with a crotchety grumble by Harrison Ford), Ender is manipulated into a series of physical and mental trials by Graff in order to build his character. Ender’s training is designed to dehumanise him and turn him into a remorseless killing machine. Just like Full Metal Jacket, only with a sci-fi inflection and, y’know, for kids.
In the lead role of Ender, Asa Butterfield does a fine job, managing to convince as both a ruthless military strategist and an innocent child. Pulling off both sides of the character is a tightrope act, but Butterfield walks the line with aplomb. Ben Kingsley pops up in a supporting role, rocking Maori facial tattoos and a bizarre accent. Compared to the nuanced turn from the lead, it’s a silly performance filled with unnecessary tics which do nothing for the plot. Harrison Ford on the other hand keeps it simple as a grumpy old bastard, something he plays as well as anyone working in cinema at the moment.
The film takes place mainly onboard a space station and as a result it’s shot in muted tones of greys, whites and blues. The sense of spatial confusion that comes with zero gravity, where there is no real up or down, is cleverly communicated with floating cameras which rotate around the action, playing with the audience’s perception. Scenes of students training inside battle rooms, floating between shields and shooting at one another like a combination of laser tag and quidditch, are impressively staged and it’s a pity that these sequences don’t come into play more as the film progresses along its dark path.
The tension between spectacle and serious issues is one which is never really resolved, causing the film to be neither action packed and fun enough for a young audience, nor sufficiently meaty enough for adults. An admirable attempt at adapting a hugely popular novel, Ender’s Game has some genuinely enjoyable set pieces and is not afraid to go to dark places; but for a film aiming at the teenage market it’s just not playful enough.