In 1985, Orson Scott Card published Ender's Game, a science fiction story of a boy being forced into early manhood to fulfill the needs of billions. It was a grand story about dealing with the loss of childhood, free will, and respect for life, and it went on to be recognized as one of the greatest pieces of 20th century science fiction literature. Its protagonist, a boy with the burden to fulfill his destiny to save the human race, has been commonly used as a template for countless characters in film and literature, Harry Potter and Neo from The Matrix trilogy being just two examples. It was inevitable that a film adaptation would be made and after several attempts at getting the movie off the ground, with a few even being written by Card himself, it's Gavin Hood's (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) take that finally made to the silver screen, but the results could have been much better.
In the not-too-distant future, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a candidate amongst hundreds of children selected to be trained as a military prodigy in preparation for a second invasion from an alien race that had attacked Earth a few decades ago. Guided by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), fellow student Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), and war veteran Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsly), Ender must work his way through the ranks and become the leader the military needs to prevent the alien race from attacking again. But as he works to achieve such a lofty goal, Ender questions the necessity of eliminating an entire race of sentient beings and learns the value of life like no military leader has understood it before.
From the moment I heard Gavin Hood would be directing this movie, I was not very confident in this film's potential. X-Men Origins: Wolverine has become known as one of the worst comic book movies of all time and I have almost nothing to argue that point. Unfortunately, much of my concerns were justified, as character development is sorely lacking, subplots from the novel that help flesh out the sci-fi setting go entirely unmentioned, and the acting is fairly subpar across the board.
The two leading actors, Butterfield and Ford, are the only two that really manage to bring much life into the narrative. Ford demonstrates a surprising amount of range that has not been seen from the actor since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), disproving the "grumpy old man" label he's been given over the years with a range of convincing emotions. Butterfield (Hugo) carries the lead role well, but with little grace. He stutters and stares at the ground when the screenplay calls for it, but when he's required to exude more confidence later in the story, he struggles at selling such moments. Butterfield was a stellar child actor and his abilities are only improving with age. Kingsley and the remaining cast do not bring much to their respective characters and do little to draw audience eyes in their direction, which is somewhat disappointing given such a grand setting and unique characters.
It must be said that every visual effects-heavy segment delivers all of the thrills and awe that one could hope for. Gavin Hood proves, much more than in Origins, that he knows how to maintain the momentum and character beats of an action set piece well, making this a must-see if an IMAX screen or D-Box seat is available in your area. Supporting the action scenes are the CGI effects, which range from okay to good, all with predictable wirework and computer rendering, with nothing to surprise.
Steve Jablonsky's score has to be addressed here, as it may have been my favorite part of the movie. When actors struggle to emote, the writing does not provide the write scenes for character development, or action scenes are not quite there, it's Jablonsky's score that provides the emotion or momentum that is not quite coming across onscreen. The score pulled me back in several times when I was loosing interest in the action onscreen, which is certainly a compliment to the performers and songwriters, who often go unnoticed in many blockbusters.
Ender's Game was a fantastic story, adapted into a so-so film. A quick look at Hood's work will show his notoriety with struggling to connect with an audience and mediocre directing ability, which certainly shows here. The two lead actors bring their own likability to their roles, but scattered writing and shallow character development prevent anyone from truly standing out. If you go to movies just for the action and visual thrills, you can do little wrong with checking this one out. If characters and story are more of your thing, I cannot recommend the Orson Scott Card's novel enough, but I would not put this one down on your "must-see" list.
Also, buy the soundtrack.