‘Ender’s Game’ fails to net high score from critics

Based on the popular young-adult novel by Orson Scott Card, the new film “Ender’s Game” shares at least superficial similarities with the recent sci-fi smash “Gravity” (with its dazzling zero-G effects) and last year’s YA blockbuster “The Hunger Games” (with its story of teenagers compelled to become cold-blooded killers). What it doesn’t share with those movies is critical acclaim.

Direted by Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) and starring “Hugo’s” Asa Butterfield in the title role as a shy but brilliant boy groomed to lead Earth against an alien invasion, “Ender’s Game” is receiving decidedly mixed reviews.

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The Times’ own Kenneth Turan declares “Ender’s Game” an “earnest, respectful film” that “gains a lot from the ability of its story to touch a nerve.” He continues: “A film for young people to which adults can eavesdrop if they are so inclined, it’s not any more sophisticated than it needs to be. But its strong special effects make its simulated battles effective and, echoing the book, its story line touches on a number of intriguing issues.”


Butterfield is “intense” and “believable” as Ender, and the movie is “invariably worth looking at,” Turan says. By touching on such contemporary issues as “drone warfare, preemptive strikes and the morality of child soldiers … ‘Ender’s Game’ turns out to be our game as well.”

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, however, finds the film humorless and says, “Childhood can be tough in movies, but rarely do screen children suffer for our sins as they do here.” Part of the problem is the character of Ender: “He’s rational and brutal, which is a harder sell on the screen, where every punch carries an unsettling intensity that the director, Gavin Hood, has trouble managing. Mr. Butterfield is one of those young performers whose seriousness feels as if it sprang from deep within. And while he’s an appealing presence, little Ender can’t help feeling like a pint-size psycho.”

Back on the plus side, the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan writes, “There’s a moral heft to ‘Ender’s Game’ that lends ballast to the science-fiction adventure about futuristic military-academy cadets. … [T]he film doesn’t need added suspense, bigger action or a better dramatic twist; it’s got all of those, in more than serviceable amounts. But it benefits greatly, at least for those who care about such things, by actually being about something — the morality of war and its methods — in a way that most movies of this type are not.”

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He adds, “‘Ender’s Game’ is more than a parable about bullying, or a disquisition on the concept of the ‘just war.’ It’s also a rousing action film, especially in Imax.”

Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal would beg to differ. He writes, “Not only does ‘Ender’s Game’ have many scenes in zero gravity, but this zero-sum fiasco has zero drama, zero suspense, zero humor, zero charm and zero appeal. It is, however, a genuine mystery — an expensive-looking sci-fi adventure, rated PG-13 and aimed at younger audiences, in which nothing of any consequence happens until the last few minutes, when the plot takes a foolish twist and the film turns into a muddled polemic about the immorality of preventive wars.”

Peter Keogh of the Boston Globe agrees with Turan and O’Sullivan that the movie “achieves a prescient glimpse into a future dominated by virtual reality, drone warfare, and poisonous demagoguery. And at its core it dramatizes the crucial conflict between empathy and destruction.”

On the other hand, “With so much to work with, it is disappointing that Gavin Hood’s adaptation is not much more than the world’s coolest video game. Despite so many volatile issues, this version of ‘Ender’s Game’ lacks passion and pain. Acted without affect in settings that are as devoid of humanity as the space station in ‘2001,’ this game plays out with cold precision but little team spirit.”

Or, as the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips puts it, “‘Ender’s Game’ is a bit of a tweener, neither triumph nor disaster, a war-games fantasy with a use-by date of Nov. 22, when the new ‘Hunger Games’ movie comes out.”


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