Film Review: 'Ender's Game' plays it straight for PG-13

The novel “Ender's Game” was the first of Orson Scott Card's multi-volume “Ender Saga,” and the film “Ender's Game” — the first bigscreen adaptation of Card's work — clearly hopes to be only the first of a long series. Card's young-adult-ish science-fiction novel takes place roughly a century from now, after the Earth has suffered terrible attacks by an alien race that intends to colonize our planet.

In the film, Andrew Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield, who also played the title role in Martin Scorsese's “Hugo”) is a 12-year-old who dreams of attending Battle School, where the officer class of the International Forces is trained. Both of Ender's siblings, Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak), had the same ambition but were eventually cut from the program.

Because of his tactical acuity in playing battle video games, Ender is singled out by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) as a great prospect. Everyone else is skeptical — Ender is a skinny little kid who might not be able to command respect from his soldiers — but Graff is sure and backs Ender up at every stage. Most of the film tracks the hero's progress, as his apparently-wrong judgment calls are repeatedly revealed to be right. About halfway through, Ender meets his second mentor (Sir Ben Kingsley), who has the wisdom of Yoda, the face of Darth Maul, and the sharp delivery of, well, Ben Kingsley.

The action is divided between computer screen simulations, i.e., video games, and shootouts in the gigantic, gravity-free Battle Room. The computer stuff is OK, but awfully familiar; on the other hand, the live Battle Room action is the best thing stuff in the movie, and shows us Ender's tactical genius. Particularly sharp is the idea that because the hardware can be controlled by hand gestures, Ender looks like an orchestra conductor at the helm.

Among his compatriots, he has a particular affinity with Petra (Hailee Steinfeld, from “True Grit”). There are clearly romantic implications, which is a little creepy when you consider that Petra looks more than a little like his sister. But this is a PG-13 film, so neither romance nor potential incest issues are developed.

Indeed, this is one of the most chaste films to be made this side of Disney. Despite the fact that the hero is smack-dab at the beginning or middle of puberty, and the others are mostly older teens, either Card or the filmmakers have sucked the hormones out of the setup. Maybe radiation exposure from the earlier invasions has changed the way that stuff works? I mean, I'm willing to suspend disbelief re buggy aliens and spiffy futuristic hardware, but teens with an utter disinterest in sex is just pushing things too far.

The plot is quite reminiscent of Robert Heinlein's “Starship Troopers” and its 1997 Paul Verhoeven adaptation. Many of the similarities flow naturally from the basic notion of Future Kids Go Through Training. But it is strange that both have giant, bug-like aliens. Card has said that he hadn't read Heinlein's book when he wrote this, so maybe we can chalk up the mutual bugginess as a coincidence.

Within the ranks of hero's-journey film, this doesn't fall too far below the median, but, man, has that story structure been done to death. At least Verhoeven's film was drenched in irony. “Ender's Game” plays everything straight. In fact, the simplest way to describe it is “‘Starship Troopers’ without the irony.”


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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