November 2, 2013



ENDER’S GAME:  Watch It At Home – Breaks The Rules, But Doesn’t Win the Game

You don’t often see a $110M (plus marketing) YA adventure, intended to kick off a new movie franchise, as resolutely off-putting as ENDER’S GAME, and that’s worthy of some respect.  Its protagonist, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), isn’t cool like a Marvel superhero, or in any way romantic like a Twilight lead, or down-to-earth and empathetic with others like Katniss Everdeen–most of the time, he’s an arrogant dork, tormented by his own dark brilliance.  The action sequences are essentially videogame-like simulations, and the big ending–to be as un-spoilery as possible–is staged in an anticlimactic way that virtually rules out wholehearted audience involvement.  The entire story is morally ambiguous, and in the last few minutes it veers in an entirely new direction, launching what one supposes would be the intended sequels.

All this is rather conceptually fascinating, so it’s disappointing that Gavin Hood’s film, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card (which itself is the first of a franchise), couldn’t have been better.  Hood never figures out how to turn the misshapen pieces of this odd tale into something satisfying.  The problem starts with Ender himself.  When we meet him, he’s 12 years old (considerably older than in the book), living on an Earth that’s still recovering from the invasion of the Formics, an insect-like alien race that killed millions 50 years earlier when it arrived with a swarm of spaceships, beaten back only by the brilliance and sacrifice of a single pilot, Mazer Rackham.  Rackham was an adult, but in the years since, the (unspecified) government has decided that only children trained from a very young age will be able to hone the instincts necessary to beat back the Formics when they inevitably attack again.

One such child is Ender, whose parents had to get permission just to have him, as families are mostly limited to two children.  Ender’s temperament neatly falls between his brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), a near-psychotic violence junkie, and sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), a font of teary-eyed emotion.  Ender is like a less smooth version of Michael Corleone, combining his own tactical brilliance with Peter’s daring and courage (and sometimes undue violence) and Valentine’s psychological insights.  In other words, he’ll ruthlessly beat someone, but for strategic reasons rather than emotional ones, and afterwards, he’ll feel really bad about it.  He’s soon recruited by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to join the official army training program.

Graff’s program relies heavily on breaking the spirits of the child soldiers and then building them up again, and Ender withstands every challenge Graff throws at him, from public humiliation to a bully for a commanding officer.  At first the program is a series of battles between teams in a combination of Lazer Tag and Quidditch, then it moves to huge-scale animated simulations, with Ender commanding a cadre of equally young officers including Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), his only real friend.

Although one can clearly see Ender’s Game in the roots of both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, here it all seems much sillier, in part because Ender’s takes itself with such deadly seriousness–even though the characters here are in a much more abstract danger than those in Potter or Hunger.  (Ender and the others are also far less well-drawn than Rowling’s or Collins’s characters.)  With challenges that resemble very elaborate forms of strip-mall teen entertainment and videogames, and the Formics having the same insectile shape that intergalactic villains take in every second sci-fi movie, the threat never seems particularly frightening.  It’s admirable that Hood’s script tries to deal with the moral contradictions of using children as warriors to the death, but the dialogue is full of so much jargon, whether spoken by Ender himself, by Graff or by the program’s psychologist Major Anderson (Viola Davis) that it comes to feel like the kind of self-help tome sold on late-night television.  Hood’s rendition of the interpersonal tensions between the young soldiers, meanwhile, is like the CW version of Full Metal Jacket.

The acting doesn’t help.  Butterfield is intense as all get-out (if he doesn’t watch out, he’ll become the new Cameron Bright), but fixing his bright blue eyes on whatever’s in front of him isn’t the same as creating a character.  Ford does nothing interesting with the one-note role of Graff, while it’s hard to tell whether Viola Davis is more embarrassed to be in the movie or if we’re more embarrassed to be watching her.  (Ben Kingsley livens things up in the third act, but it would be unfair to disclose the details of his role.)  Incidentally:  Orson Scott Card’s noxious personal politics have become very public, and although the movie doesn’t go near any of his more awful views, there’s still something old-fashioned and stifling about the fact that throughout the movie, it’s the females–Davis, Steinfeld, Breslin–who express emotion, while the men remain almost entirely stoic, a world-view that feels about 50 years out of date.

Ender’s has a handsome look, with cinematography by Donald McAlpine, but it has the misfortune of being the first big special-effects movie to come along after Gravity, to which its visuals can’t begin to compare.  In terms of the CG, little of what we see looks convincing, and it’s not always easy to tell what’s the videogame within the film and what’s “real”.  The music by Steve Jablonsky is weirdly–almost deliberately–reminiscent of the theme for Game of Thrones.

Ender’s Game isn’t a cookie-cutter piece of corporate franchise-making, but it doesn’t replace the usual moves with anything better.  Its new game just isn’t any fun.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."