(by Dustin Putman
2013 has been a banner year for the science-fiction genre, reaping fertile ideas, a heaping of imagination and an exhilarating sense of wonder out of films such as "Oblivion," "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "Gravity." In a lesser year, perhaps "Ender's Game" would make a more lasting impression. Based on the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card and adapted for the screen by writer-director Gavin Hood (2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), it is an acute, surprisingly timely coming-of-age adventure, but one that only truly gets going and takes a turn into deeper, more perceptive thematic territory in the final stretch. As conceived, it is clear that this is intended to be the first in a new franchise; the picture does not reach a finite conclusion so much as paves the way for what one can only assume will be bigger and better things to come. For this reason, it is more than worth it to see "Ender's Game"—just don't expect it to match the visionary likes of Joseph Kosinski, J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron. Article continues below
Late in the twenty-first century, Earth has persevered against the calamity of an alien invasion that claimed the lives of millions fifty years earlier. Believing that it is only a matter of time before the otherworldly creatures, called Formics, return for another destructive onslaught, the International Fleet led by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) creates a program rallying together the smartest kids they can find to train for retaliation against their attackers. Within the Wiggin family, the hot-headed Peter (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak) is deemed too emotional and sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) is too compassionate for the fight. Their younger brother, however, 14-year-old Ender (Asa Butterfield), impresses Graff and colleague Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). He's intelligent, yes, but also more than that, his strategic processes advanced beyond any of their other recruits. As Ender struggles to find himself in the program and befriends the cunning Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld) along the way, he faces off against Graff over the strict, domineering rules placed upon him and his cohorts.
Production values are sky-high and the visual effects bringing this futuristic but still largely recognizable setting to life are excellent, but "Ender's Game" plays almost like the first half of 2012's "The Hunger Games" when Katniss and Peeta were in the training phase before the actual competition. The viewer waits patiently for the story to move beyond this, and it does, kind of, but not in the way one expects and at the risk of leaving the proceedings feeling decidedly anticlimactic. With that said, it is the sucker-punch of a third act that stands the plot's trajectory on its head while veering down a tastily provocative path. This poignant last fifteen minutes, which will not be revealed here but can be said involves a face-to-face encounter with the alien queen, saves the film as a whole from the arresting but relatively uneventful trap of all that has come before.
Asa Butterfield (2011's "Hugo") is outstanding as Ender Wiggin, yearning to find acceptance but not above challenging authority when he disagrees with others' decisions and actions. The movie—and the story's circumstances—weigh heavily on Butterfield and his title hero, and the actor comes into his own with a confidence and command that never once compromises his sympathetic nature. It's not just a solid performance, but one that carries the film through its rougher patches and elevates the material. As Petra, Hailee Steinfeld (2010's "True Grit") is likable but saddled with an underdeveloped role that requires she mostly support Ender's endeavors. As the adults masterminding the operation, Harrison Ford (2013's "42") is effectively dogmatic as Colonel Graff; Viola Davis (2013's "Prisoners") reliably portrays Major Anderson as someone torn between what she is instructed to do and what she believes is right, and Ben Kingsley (2013's "Iron Man 3") is outshone by his distracting facial tattoos as command school trainer Mazer Rackham. This is such an obvious Kingsley-esque character that it inadvertently turns the role into a caricature.
In just a few scenes, Abigail Breslin (2013's "Haunter") is emotionally in tune as Valentine Wiggin, building an unbreakable sibling bond with Ender, while Moises Arias (2013's "The Kings of Summer") is appropriately spiteful as bullying adversary Bonzo. When an accident occurs and someone gets hurt, a character tells Ender what he already knows deep down inside: that he loves Bonzo. The intention is likely not romantically minded, but it is interesting to consider this scene with the foreknowledge of the controversy that incurred a couple months prior to release when author Orson Scott Card publically made anti-gay statements. Finally, Nonso Anozie (2012's "The Grey"), as Sergeant Dap, falls victim to a hoary cliché: that of the gruff superior who vows to never respect the protagonist. By the halfway point, he has changed his mind with a groan-inducing salute.
"Ender's Game" uses occasional iconography of our present-day world—posters reading "Never Again" and "We Remember" are seen hanging in the background of an early shot—to intimate us with its fictional tale of life moving on following tragedy. It doesn't come off as exploitative, though, because director Gavin Hood has mounted the production with a thoughtful texture and attention to the constant moralistic conundrum of committing violence against another. It can be as an act of protection and defense, yes, but does that always make it right? Ender is plagued by this very question, and it is his desire to make amends for what he has done that rejuvenates the narrative and sets up the hoped-for sequel. If a continuation does not transpire, then "Ender's Game" will stand as a frustratingly unfinished curiosity. If it does, then it could be the respectable prologue to far greater things yet on the horizon.