A striving but stilted tale of kids versus kids is the latest from X-Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood.
Kids fighting kids: it’s the current cinematic trend, films predicated upon combat between children gracing screens with increasing frequency. Of course, the concept of competition always grounds the conflict in a broader scenario, just as a struggle for what’s right provides narrative justification; however the battle between youths – even when couched in playful terms, or married with serious concerns – remains. Think the Harry Potter franchise’s quidditch contests in the name of team spirit, I Declare War’s exploration of self-preservation tendencies through a game of capture the flag, and The Hunger Games’ packaging of survival and rebellion, as televised for the masses. Ender’s Game joins the fray steeped in the fantastical, pitting its pre-teens against each other in a quest to vanquish an alien invasion.
Following the footprint of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game inhabits a futuristic world once rocked by intergalactic war, and now in fear of a repeat occurrence. The hopes of humanity are placed in the next generation, the International Fleet’s Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford, Paranoia) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, Prisoners) charged with testing and training the brightest young minds to challenge the ever-looming threat of further bloodshed. The precocious Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) becomes their primary target.
The third child in his family in a society that considers two more than enough, Ender is burdened with the weight of expectation; with his brother Peter (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak, Let Me In) deemed too violent, and his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin, August: Osage County) too compassionate, Ender must balance the proclivities of both to fulfil the last chance the Wiggin clan has at patriotic glory. Graff manipulates Ender’s desperation to succeed, casting him apart from other children, nurturing his strategic nous, and using simulated war games in an attempt to shape him in the mould of Earth’s future leader and saviour.
Though the main theoretical clash exists with the ant-like interlopers and their potential for a space-mounted attack, the majority of writer/director Gavin Hood’s (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) adaptation concerns itself with animosity between Ender and his peers, building character the desired outcome. Alas, the solidifying of personality that proves central to the story comes at the cost of the construction of anything more than archetypes, the parade of bland but brutally-minded adolescents little more than a means to a heavy-handed thematic end, pondering egalitarianism and the true cost of pursuing the greater good as they constantly scuffle and bicker.
When Hood isn’t relying upon arguments and aggression to drive the feature, the enmity that surrounds the youthful participants his main dramatic thrust, he wraps their efforts in gimmick-driven instances of the titular gameplay – zero-gravity sports-like contests, console-esque screen battles, and animated computer programs among them. Aesthetic apathy follows the void of emotional connection that emanates in the talk-centric effort, the flat visuals fitting yet free from interest in their stock-standard form. Cinematographer Don McAlpine’s (Mental) keen eye is evident in the careful compositions, but the veteran is never gifted with the opportunity to enliven the material.
The array of young on-screen talent fares little better in their perpetual posturing, despite concerted efforts. Butterfield’s embodiment of Ender’s mirthless mindset is eclipsed by co-star Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as his spirited second-in-command; Ford remains sombre, Davis sympathetic, and Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) inconsistently accented as their adult accompaniments. Tension never threatens to stem from their performances, just as suspense never enters the feature’s rendering of its science fiction concept. Indeed, the focus on kids fighting kids isn’t the most troubling aspect of Ender’s Game; instead, it is the tedium and monotony in a film so obviously striving but stilted.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Director: Gavin Hood
US, 2013, 114 mins
Release date: December 5