Seventy years ago planet Earth was ravaged by a technologically superior alien race of super-intelligent bugs called Formics. Only the heroic sacrifice of a brave young fighter pilot prevented humanity's destruction. Now, as the nations of the world band together to prevent another invasion, Colonel Hiram Graff (Harrison Ford) discerns that another young boy, the brilliant and gifted Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) has the potential to destroy the enemy once and for all. So Colonel Graff removes Ender from his family, including his beloved sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and frankly psychotic brother Peter (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak), and brings him to an orbiting space station. At this battle school Ender trains alongside similarly promising child cadets forming a close friendship with Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld). Yet even as Ender grows to excel as a master tactician and commander, he begins to despise what he does and question the necessity of this war.
Of the many wannabe teen science fiction or fantasy franchises released in 2013, Ender's Game looked like it held all the ingredients for a sure-fire hit. Kids battling aliens amidst the interstellar equivalent of Hogwarts. Harrison Ford back at the controls of a spaceship. An acclaimed source novel with a fervent fanbase that had been clamouring for a movie adaptation for thirty years. Yet the resulting film not only proved one of the costliest box office failures of the year but flew into a shit-storm of controversy on account of original author and co-producer Orson Scott Card's stern opposition to same-sex marriage. As a result some fan groups staged a boycott of the film even though producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, part of the team behind the Transformers franchise of which this is tonally the complete opposite, rightly pointed out Card's personal views on gay rights played no part in the plot and were reflected nowhere on screen.
Even so, although Ender's Game has many laudable aspects it is not hard to discern why the film failed to connect with its target young audience. Where most teen fantasies are impassioned, headstrong and romantic, often as detractors claim to the detriment of plot logic, Ender's Game is rational, reasonable and just that little bit creepy in a manner reflected in the intense performance delivered by Asa Butterfield. If Twilight (2008), Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) and The Hunger Games (2012) urge youngsters to give vent to their emotions, in Ender's Game the conflict is largely internalized in line with Card's higher philosophical aspirations. Some critics derided the novel as an extended philosophical justification for genocide, but this is patently untrue. The moral trajectory of the plot argues winning a war is far less important than the manner in which one chooses to wage war. Unfortunately writer-director Gavin Hood downplays such moral dilemmas until late into the third act whereupon the payoff clouds Ender's actions in ambiguity that whilst thought-provoking remain dramatically unsatisfying.
For the most part it is an adventure for spotty chess geeks or those fond of strategy games. To the film's credit, in place of the usual "blast 'em all" ethos of your average space opera, Ender's Game presents a young hero who is always thinking, constantly trying to figure things out although even this aspect of his personality proves faintly unsettling. In line with the prevailing trend in teen fantasies that function as allegories for the right of passage that is high school, Ender's Game envisions a harsh military driven society where Napoleon and Julius Caesar are role models, compassion is weakness, brutality is necessary, strategy is everything and an affinity for psychological manipulation proves the mark of a hero. Despite a late hour about-face, for much of the running time the film neither scrutinizes nor satirizes these values but accepts things as they are. Nor does it adequately question the morality of sending children into battle. For all their valiant efforts the young cast are never entirely convincing as badass soldiers. Frankly it is faintly comical to watch onetime Hannah Montana fixture Moises Arias strut around like he is in a kid's theatre production of Full Metal Jacket (1987). On the positive side, the tense mentor-protégé relationship between Col. Graff and Ender is well drawn and well played. This is also one of the few science fiction films with a welcome international flavour showcasing characters of diverse ethnic backgrounds including a positive Muslim character. Nevertheless, given the novel was a major influence on the hugely successful anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) it is disappointing the film struggles to make such a potent premise compelling.