Film Review: Ender's Game

Child soldiers train for an alien invasion in a fast-moving adaptation of the sci-fi classic.

This polished adaptation arrives almost 30 years after the publication of the science-fiction hit by Orson Scott Card. Fans won't mind how the movie streamlines the novel, and newcomers will find some intriguing ideas in what has become a pretty familiar storyline. But Ender's Game enters a market dominated by the Hunger Games trilogy, and the key to its success will be how it competes against Catching Fire.

The opening scenes of Ender's Game move very quickly, sketching in a lot of background with bold, assured strokes. In a stripped-down voiceover, Andrew "Ender" Wiggan (Asa Butterfield) explains how Earth suffered huge losses in an invasion of ant-like Formics. To prepare for the next invasion, gifted children are trained with high-tech battle simulators, the weaker washing out while those with better strategic skills advance to Command School.

It's a grim, dog-eat-dog vision of a future in which ends justify means. Children learn to strike first with overwhelming force, egged on by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), while shrink Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) worries on the sidelines.

Graff singles Ender out for praise, sabotaging the youth with his peers as a way of testing his resilience. In zero-gravity war games, Ender learns how to defeat enemies like Bonzo (Moises Arias) while building a skilled team of cadets, including Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), Bean (Aramis Knight) and Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy).

Advancement comes at a cost. Cut off from the emotional support of his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), Ender at one point quits the program. After canny negotiating, he and his team are sent to an advance base near the Formic home planet. Here Ender trains under legendary war hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) in simulations that increase in intensity.

As a screenwriter, Gavin Hood manages to tell the story almost entirely from Ender's point-of-view, with dialogue that is both terse and revealing. As director, he takes a straightforward, no-nonsense approach, propelling the plot along with little down time. Hood makes good use of the story's visual opportunities, especially during the battle games but even in bunkrooms and space-station corridors. He gets an energized performance from Ford (evoking his role in Star Wars) and a nuanced one from Butterfield (last seen in Hugo), although the other characters tend to be short-changed—in particular Kingsley's Rackham and Steinfeld's Petra.

Much of what happens in Ender's Game seems like a kid-oriented retread of sci-fi films like Star Wars or Starship Troopers. At times the movie's similarities to franchises like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are uncanny. Along with the sense that the storyline is no longer fresh is a lack of urgency and suspense in the training scenes. (To be fair, part of that problem is built into the original novel.) No matter how many other movies and books Ender's Game references, its story and characters remain solid and compelling.

Summit Entertainment staked a lot on Ender's Game to replace its Twilight trilogy. The movie leaves open the possibility of a sequel, although Orson Scott Card's other novels in the series are different in tone and content. However the franchise plays out, the deftly made Ender's Game is smart and exciting enough to succeed on its own.