Mediocre "Ender's Game" Finishes Strong

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi novel, “Ender’s Game,” wasn’t exactly calling out for a film adaptation now, was it? For all the sci-fi that’s permeated our popular culture since the mid 80s, Card’s story – at least in its cinematic form – seems quaint, almost entirely removed from the kind of influence it’s purported to have had on the genre. But film studios are as hot as ever on building young adult franchises, trying to replicate the lightning in a bottle success of “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” and “The Hunger Games.” So, why not?

What Hollywood consistently overlooks, however, is that for every “Hunger Games,” there’s three “Beautiful Creatures.” For all of the massive success of the “Eragon” books, no one bothered to see the film when it hit theaters in 2006, immediately crushing Fox’s hopes of a franchise. Not even the beloved “Narnia” series could muster more than three films (at two different studios) before calling it a day.

When it comes to franchise building, quality helps, but it’s better to be lucky. Only time will tell if moviegoers will demand more of the “Ender’s Game” universe but its first iteration is semi-competent, which is a good start. While the pic’s first 90 minutes are bland and nonchalant, writer-director Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) seems to have learned from his first foray into big budget filmmaking, avoiding the kind of crippling missteps that have sunk many would-be franchises.

Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) stars as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a young space cadet. The year is 2068 and mankind is in the midst of a war with an insect-like alien species. A duo of military elders, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) are responsible for recruiting gifted teenagers – an age range seen as ideal for combatants – and their sights are set on Ender. After some initial testing, the unusually talented Ender is promoted to Battle School.

The bulk of the film takes place in Battle School, rendering the whole pic as a kind of extended training montage. Elements of Ender’s home life are shoehorned in – Abigail Breslin has a small part as his sister, Valentine – but the focus is on military simulations with an obvious sci-fi bent. Thusly, none of the action sequences have any significant real world consequences, until they do, at which point the story can only regain so much momentum. The bland production design (see: Ford’s cheap looking costume, dull interiors) doesn’t help matters.

But Butterfield is excellent in the title role, several cuts above his fellow young cast members. This includes Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) and “Kings of Summer” standout, Moises Arias, neither of which get much to do or do much with it. Butterfield is a conundrum of an actor, but happily so. He’s assured but vulnerable, and never slips into the kind of overacting that befalls so many child actors. Even Ford is relatively engaged, delivering on the promise of his return to science fiction.

Ben Kingsley gets an interesting turn as the mysterious war hero, Mazer Rackham, but like much of the film, the character isn’t very impactful. The weightlessness of the zero gravity action scenes is an apt metaphor for Gavin Hood’s screenplay, a lightweight amalgamation of its ostensibly heady source material. That is, until the film’s final 20 minutes, in which it becomes more gripping and insightful than any sci-fi released this year.

I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the pic’s final act, but it elevates everything that came before it. The endless training sequences vanish into thin air, the screenplay’s wispy “jokes” disperse, and it suddenly becomes thoughtful, eloquent, and everything else I had given up on it becoming. A film that I had mostly not enjoyed to that point instantly piqued my interest and made me want to revisit it – something that many good films don’t even do.

So while there are issues with the majority of “Ender’s Game,” it’s impossible to dismiss. Its gaps in storytelling are real, its potential largely unfulfilled, but that it lays a solid foundation for future entries can’t be denied. It plays things painfully safe at times, but in doing so, Gavin Hood and his solid cast have avoided the pitfalls usually associated with the cynical world of franchise building. And for that, they should be applauded. If only the bulk of the film shared in the weight of its finale. Next time, perhaps?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 1, 2013
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Gavin Hood
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Viola Davis, Nonso Anozie, Stevie Ray Dillmore, Andrea Powell, Moises Arias
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material)