“Ender’s Game” is like a multi-million dollar video game that you never get to play. The ads confidently inform us that “This Is Not A Game”, but gee, it sure looks like one. The characters shoot at each other, and then shoot at selected non-human targets. Ships fly around in formation while a player directs them to where they are suppose to go. There’s even a simulation in which a bearded Giant instructs the player to select from one of two goblets – one of which is apparently poisoned. When the characters are required to talk (and they talk a LOT), they do so in that flat monotonous tone and speak in canned dialogue that sounds a lot like . . . well, like cut scenes from a video game.
The plot is a long, boring slog through perfunctory events made up out of spare parts from other movies. That’s sad because this property is based on a popular 1985 science fiction book by Orson Scott Card which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and was followed by a series of sequels and follow-ups; then video games, comic books, and an audio play. Loyal fans have waited nearly 30 years to get a film adaptation and all they get is a half-written kids movie that only works if you happen to suffer from short-term memory loss.
If this is your first foray into this series, you may be left scratching your head trying to figure out the reasons for the book’s vast popularity. Apparently, according to loyal fans, pages and pages of storylines have been torn out leaving character development and storylines confused and underwritten. All creativity here seems to have gone into the production design while the screenplay seems to have been left in a corner somewhere collecting dust. The story elements in this film play feel like they were drawn out of a hat.
The story, if you peel back all the glossy production values, resembles one of those World War II movies where a platoon of eager young recruits goes through basic training and the person who gets elevated to the level of commander is the company screw-up. In “Ender’s Game”, The Army is replaced by an interstellar battle school and the screw-up is a twerp named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) whose surname is repeated over and over ad nauseum until you feel like shouting it back at the screen. Apparently, he has the gift of being able to get out of a no-win situation. Maybe Captain Kirk should have come onboard to give the kid a push in the right direction.
The story takes place sometime in the future when mankind is on the verge of being besieged by a swarm of intergalactic bugs called Formics. This school’s mission is getting young pre-teen recruits ready to go to war. The head of recruiting, named Graff (Harrison Ford), has confidence in little Wiggin because he has “a good killer instinct” despite the fact that most of the kid’s actions seem to suggest otherwise. Eventually, he has to lead his fellow recruits in a battle against the bugs. The script has the nerve to suggest that we’re suppose to feel some empathy for these bugs, but looking at them up close they don’t exactly tug at your heart. They look a little like the bugs in “Aliens” and are so unsightly that you feel like swatting them with a newspaper.
Most of “Ender’s Game” deals with Little Wiggin’s time in basic training. He comes under the thumb of, not one, but TWO loud-mouthed drill sergeants. The first is a burly black man named Dap (Nonso Anozie) who assures Little Wiggin that he will never EVER salute him (you get no points for guessing that he will eventually break that rule). The other drill sergeant is a young hothead named Bonzo Madrid (yes . . . Bonzo Madrid) who wears a permanent scowl reminiscent of Moe from The Three Stooges. Actually, Bonzo is the most interesting person in the movie only because you remember him. Everyone else is more or less superfluous.
The adults aren’t given good roles either. Harrison Ford is wasted in a role that offers him no personality or even a character to play. Ditto the wonderful Viola Davis who plays an empathetic Major, pops in to have a few verbal disagreements with Ford and then disappears. Davis has proven herself to be one of the most talented and understated actresses of her generation, but here she’s stuck with a role that never takes advantage of her unique gifts. This is a role so bland and so underwritten that it could have been played by a computer.
Ben Kingsley plays a mysterious figure named Mazer Rackham, a half-Maori war hero who is apparently supposed to be Wiggin’s trainer and mentor. The sight of Kingsley with the Maori tattoos on his face has to be seen to be believed. It looks like it was sketched by a five year-old with a ball point pen. Ben Kingsley is a brilliant actor who has stumbled twice this year with this role and in a wasted role as The Mandarin in “Iron Man Three.” He is either a really good sport or he should start shopping for a new agent.
The director of “Ender’s Game” is a South African named Gavin Hood whose previous efforts include directing “X-Men Origin: Wolverine” and acting in such memorable epics as “Kickboxer 5” and “Project Shadowchaser II.” That’s not exactly a stellar resume, but it would explain a lot, especially since he adapted the screenplay himself. He has a tin ear for dialogue and employs a mallet in place of a soft artistic touch. His film ends by suggesting a sequel. The obvious suggestion would be that he should skip over the movie and turn it into a video game. That way at least you have some control over the proceeding, like when to turn it off and go do something else.