★★★ Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) grew up after aliens first invaded Earth. Tens of millions died and the people of Earth vowed, "Never Again." Of course, the phrase "Never Again," brings up World War II issues, but we need to put them aside because the film is not interested in making any kind of statement here. The book may have delved deeper into that, but that's neither here nor there, especially since I haven't read it.
Ever since that first invasion, Earth has raised its children on a diet of war games. We're now raising recruits, not families, and these budding space marines will help us protect ourselves in the future. Every step of the recruits lives are closely monitored.
In Ender's case, his life feels more orchestrated than monitored. This is thanks to Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) who has taken a special interest in Ender. He thinks he may be "the one." I was initially worried about Ford here. His role in 42 really made me really question his current acting abilities, but he gives a nice turn here. He's not the best in the film though. That nod goes to Ben Kingsley, who's face tattoo initially had me worried, but he's able to act around it quite nicely.
Orchestrated is certainly the correct word for Ender's life, because Graff plays him like a fiddle. Ender is hard-pressed to fit in anywhere, and anytime he makes headway in making friends, he is reassigned, being promoted very quickly up through the ranks of "Battle School."
Battle School takes place in an orbiting space station and consists primarily of zero gravity laser tag, a form of training that gets the recruits to work together and begin to form strategies and tactics that will help them in the inevitable war with the aliens.
They also learn hand to hand combat which seems to be the equivalent of gym class since there is no place for ground combat in this new war. They learn other classroom things too but they're brushed by with lines like, "This is basic rocket science, people!"
Ender himself is a bully magnet. Everyone in school hates him and he has a hard time not only making friends but getting people to follow him as a leader. But when he stands up to to Graff about the issue of privacy rights, he wins over a number of the recruits. Of course, Graff has a nice way of reminding Ender of his place. "You have the right to privately think whatever you want, Wiggin."
Ender ends up leading the "Dragon Army," one of many animal named sub groups of recruits. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the names and they vary from Leopard to Centipede.
In his down time, Ender plays a "mind game" on his tablet. The graphics are really well done here, and I say that in film full of excellent CGI. The game really looks and feels like a next generation video game, something that exists beyond the possibilities of the PS4 or Xbox One.
The idea of Ender's life being orchestrated is perfect since he grows up to basically conduct a symphony of destruction, waving his hands through the air controlling virtual computer terminals similar to what Tom Cruise does in Minority Report.
Ender's Game revolves around the idea of watching this teenager deal with some very dire consequences to his actions. And while there's a lot there to process, the film spends too much time reveling in its action scenes and not enough time actually wrestling with these issues.
Any scene where Ender has time to think about what's going on feels wedged in and exists just long enough to hold the CGI at bay before we're back into the action. One scene at a lake feels especially out of place. We never even see how Ender got there in the first place, but he's there only for a brief conversation with his sister before he continues with his training.
Of course, not giving Ender time to think is exactly what Graff wants. He says, "When the war is over we can have the luxury of debating the morality of what we do."
If Ender's Game had more seriously looked at the way Ender processed his feelings it would have been a different movie, but I think it would have been a better one. Perhaps there's more introspection in store in the sequel, if one gets made. But even if it doesn't, the film certainly made me appreciate the source material enough to put the novel on my to-read list.