In the future, Earth comes close to annihilation due to a technologically advanced bug like alien enemy named “Formic”. The planet is saved by a heroic act by the revered “Mazer Rackham” (Ben Kingsley), forestalling the end of the world as we know it.
Deciding that forewarned is forearmed, resources are poured into a upgrading military might and most importantly mentoring leaders for the battle ahead.
Rather than relying on crusty generals with slow reaction times, any future war will be fought remotely by youngsters, groomed from an early age to plan, strategise and become a dedicated tool against the enemy.
To this end children are selected to enter a military boot camp with a harsh and ruthless selection process. Those chosen, get to play a constant succession of battle games against each other in weightless conditions, designed to find the required leaders.
Enter “Ender Wiggins” (Asa Butterfield), a slight fragile teenager bullied by his brother before being selected for the school. Over time, his inherent abilities begin to show and he gradually and deliberately, is systematically marginalised from the other youngsters, to see how he copes with the demands of command.
His training is overseen by “Major Gwen Anderson” (Viola Davis), someone who cares for the boy’s well being. From the opposite end of the spectrum, Anderson’s superior “Colonel Graff” (Harrison Ford), thinks of the boy merely as a tool, to be refined, honed and then aimed at the enemy.
There are many scenes of training and suffering at the hands of bullies and overbearing commanders. Think “full Metal Jacket”, the early years. Despite this, “Wiggins” continues to do well and aside of some misgivings, continues to rise through the ranks. What is required is a supreme commander, is Wiggins the chosen one to lead the response going forward?
This latter point is the main crux of the film. Previously Earth was attacked and all but destroyed and yet has now been left alone for many years. What is deemed a proportional response and when does defence become a pre-emptive strike?
The films effects are achieved well and the climatic battles are well played and easy to follow, there is a sense of scale and gravity (in both senses) and there is unexpected depth as the film comes to a close.
It is good to see Harrison in space again, whatever the context and he performs adequately with good support from Viola Davis. Ben Kingsley does not get much time and is saddled with a very mixed accent. He is emulating not entirely successfully, the NZ dialect to match the Maori “Moko”, a full face tattoo adorning his face.
Butterfield and his young leads do as well as could be expected but any large budget film resting on such young shoulders is a risk. Not so much in the acting ability but they represent a difficult age. Not quite young adults with the handy emotional baggage and relationships complications, that can be safely explored by a screenwriter.
The film is based on the similarly titled book by Orsen Scott Card which delves more into Wiggins childhood than the film has time for. The author causing some controversy as the film opened with his conservative views, arguably hurting the films chances at the box office.
Overall this is a well made film which cannot quite escape the difficulties of such a young cast in a action movie and the restrictions this imposes. Solid work from the adult and younger cast, Kingsley’s accent withstanding, tied to a story more adult and thoughtful than might be expected.
Box office returns suggest we may not see more of the books on the screen, a result that may not be detrimental, as later novels are more philosophical in nature. Arguably the film falls between two stools, with grown up themes less suited to youngsters of similar age to the protagonist, yet not quite adult enough for a more mature audience.
A futuristic space set movie that dares to ask bigger questions and remains a better watch than you might have expected or been led to believe.
The film has some fundamental flaws but is enjoyable and resonates towards the end in ways you might not expect.