Let's get this out of the way.
I don't know Orson Scott Card. I'm only vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding Card's statements opposing gay marriage and, quite honestly, I can't fathom such a belief justifying any sort of "boycott" of this film based upon his work (a boycott that obviously failed miserably given the film's opening weekend grosses).
I may not agree with Card's politics, but this long awaited film based upon his novel is a thought-provoking, involving and downright entertaining film that benefits greatly from the top notch casting of Harrison Ford as Col. Graff and Asa Butterfield as the film's namesake, Ender Wiggin.
While Ender's Game has virtually no chance of attaining a degree of success comparable to that of this season's other sci-fi hit Gravity, that may very well be the film's greatest strength. While Gravity is a good film, possibly even a great film, the film is really quite simple in its premise and lacking for the most part in anything resembling a moral dilemma.
Ender's Game, on the other hand, finds its true substance in its moral quandaries and intellectual prowess. It's a thinking man's sci-fi film that also manages to be a visually arresting and entertaining film for those who aren't seeking much more than a popcorn flick. My guess is that the film will play most successful to those who are familiar with the source material, though familiarity with the source material is far from necessary to actually appreciate the film.
Asa Butterfield plays the film's 15-year-old hero, Ender Wiggin, a slightly young man who is being groomed to fight the Formics, aka "Buggers," a "bug like" people who 50 years earlier had attacked Earth and killed millions of people before being driven back to their native planet. It's inevitable that they will return, of course, and this time around the adults in charge aren't quite as confident of humanity's ability to stave off their attacks. The adults have figured out that it is actually children who have the skills necessary to successfully combat the Formics, mostly owing to the multi-layered complexities within their brains and their ability to multi-task.
If you are unfamiliar with the work of Asa Butterfield, he first came to Hollywood's attention in the under-appreciated The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a mind-bogglingly powerful family film based upon the book of the same name about a young boy who doesn't quite realize the full spectrum of his father's role in a "camp" next door to his family's home during World War II in Germany. Butterfield didn't stop with that magnificent performance and may very well be best known for his tremendous performance in Scorsese's Hugo. In Ender's Game, Butterfield should cement his reputation as one of Hollywood's most gifted young actors with a performance that is complex, emotionally resonant, intelligent and simply mesmerizing.
Harrison Ford isn't given as much to do here, but what he does he manages to do incredibly well. Moises Arias also makes a strong impression as the bully Bonzo, while Abigail Breslin impresses as Ender's compassionate sister Valentine and Hailee Steinfeld almost makes us forget that forgettable debacle called Romeo & Juliet in her performance as Petra Arkanian.
Director Gavin Hood, whose Tsotsi and X-Men Origins: Wolverine proved that he could handle morally complex action, might actually play things just a wee bit soft here with certain killings that don't have quite the impact that they do in Card's novel. However, Hood does an admirable job of capturing Card's bleakness without allowing the film to drown in it. The film, refreshingly not shot in 3-D, is still most impressive in the IMAX format and this may be one of the few occasions when I'd easily recommend the extra expense necessary to see it in that preferred format. While sci-fi will never be one of this critic's preferred genres of film, Ender's Game captivated me from beginning to end and has me thinking about its themes, especially those around the currently relevant idea of pre-emptive/defensive genocide, long after I've actually watched the film.
In fact, I can't wait to see it again.
While the film's climactic battle is a tad anti-climactic, Hood does a great job of creating a battle room that is both believable and unforgettably appealing.
While I've been trying to avoid any reviews/feedback until I could catch the film, which occurred a bit later than usual for me, brief blips and social networking status messages have flown across my desktop revealing the film's mixed feedback ranging from "everything I'd hoped for" to an absolute "fiasco."
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Ender's Game is a refreshingly substantial and thought-provoking sci-fi experience that occasionally suffers from pacing issues and characters that are a tad too paper thin to support the film's weighty material. On the flip side, Ender's Game truly IS a thought provoking and visually arresting film with an absolutely terrific performance from Asa Butterfield in the lead and a fine supporting cast that seems to "get" Card's vision and the universe he's created.
Much like the political views of Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game is a film you may love or you may hate but you simply will not be able to ignore.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic