Why do such a huge percentage of all invading alien races have to be a bug or crustacean species? Other than that little pet peeve of mine, I'm on board with this bit of military-heavy science fiction that covers a paranoid period in Earth's future where child soldiers are being trained and prepped to be the next wave of defense against a possible second massive attack from an alien race known as the Formics, who, shockingly enough, look like bugs. Many years earlier, the Formics attacked and nearly wiped out Earth were it not for the inventive battle tactics of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), considered by all to be a sainted hero of the planet.
Based on the first of many novels in the Enderverse series by Orson Scott Card, ENDER'S GAME is the story of Ender Wiggin (HUGO's Asa Butterfield), a child from a family of siblings who tried and failed to make it to Battle School (let alone Command School, where the true leaders land). His brother was kicked out for being too violent; his sister (Abigail Breslin) was eliminated because she was too emotional (girls, right?), but she still supports Ender in his quest for greatness and acts as something of a spirit guide as he contemplates battle strategy and how to play well with others. Part of the reason Ender is so successful in his education and training is that he's a contemplative lad who evaluates each situation with a cool head and a killer's heart, a fact that he sometimes finds troubling.
Watching him carefully as he makes his way through various boot-camp-style International Military schools are Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). It doesn't take long for Ender to rise through the ranks and become the natural choice to lead the forces against the Formics, who Col. Graff is convinced are readying for a second-wave assault. Sizable portions of ENDER'S GAME involve watching Ender in various training scenarios, as groups of students are pitted against each other in what appears to be the greatest zero-gravity, laser tag battlefield in history. But Ender is also challenged on a more personal level, to see how he handles bullies, rejection, and being set apart as a leader, never really being able to fraternize with his fellow students (although he does manage to keep a few friends, in particular Petra, played by TRUE GRIT's Hailee Steinfeld).
In the beginning of the film (adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, who made X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, RENDITION and TSOTSI), I wasn't certain I was enjoying Butterfield's performance, a combination of fear and ego. But as the film goes on, we begin to realize that his responses are measured and calculated and exactly how someone whose brain is working at a million miles per hour would behave. You can see the deduction going on behind his eyes, and when he does finally act during countless battle simulation exercises, it's swift and decisive.
What I wasn't expecting—but was happy to see—was that ENDER'S GAME turns into an unexpectedly smart antiwar film, when Graff makes it clear what his intentions are with his new young leader. Ford has a speech at the end of the film that brings out such a solid combination of anger and desperation that it reminds us that he is so much better an actor than some of his more scowling-oriented work of late would have us believe. This is the best work Ford has done in years, and it has nothing to do with him being back in an outer space environment. Graff is a man and military leader who is afraid for Earth's survival, and he's not above certain immoral acts to ensure its safety. The thing that pleasantly surprised me most about ENDER'S GAME is that it's a morality tale in the guise of a science-fiction story.
The visuals here are also fairly remarkable—rather than go for the grungy look so many space-related action films adapt, ENDER'S GAME takes place in a clean, crisp environment that looks exactly how you'd expect a spit-and-polish military academy to look. And the special effects, especially the scenes of swarming aliens attacking remote-controlled (by students) drone ships, is pretty remarkable stuff.
ENDER'S GAME is a fairly angst-ridden affair, between Ender contemplating his role as leader and those in command worrying about the fate of the human race. But it's a welcome change from the kids-in-space works of the past filled with wide-eyed children yelling "Yippee!" and drinking Tang out of a juice box. By the time Ender meets his (and everybody's) hero, Mazer Rackham, the film has became a very mature story about some very serious subjects that have real resonance in today's world. There's no preaching here, but that almost makes the film's underlying messages speak louder. I hope the folks who made this film get a chance to continue to explore this universe and these issues, without losing site on the social commentary that is a crucial part of so much great science fiction.