Review: ‘Ender’s Game’ Has a Lot of Fun But Barely Keeps Itself Tied Together

Ender's Game2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The success of Ender’s Game rests on the shoulders of one grand assumption: that everybody in the audience, everybody in the world, wishes they could have gone to space camp. And for the most part, that’s true. The idea of space camp was, even to those of us stricken with cloying vertigo, heaven. We all wanted to don astronaut suits and float through anti-gravity rooms, blasting away at each other with lasers and learning the tricks of the extraterrestrial warfare trade. Those dazzling dreams are the principal meat of Gavin Hood’s adaptation of the controversial classic — the majority of the time we spend with Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), we’re alongside him in battle school. We’re watching video footage of a battalion laying waste to an army of invaders, and zipping weightlessly along in high-stakes games of space rugby. So, through these chapters, we’re having fun.

And it’s not entirely untethered fun. Along the way, Ender endures the sort of coming-of-age traumas we’ve seen in every preteen protagonist from Sean Astin to Daniel Radcliffe. He doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t like what he’s becoming. It’s not difficult material to wrestle with, but it’s just enough substance to give us a reason for caring about whether or not he beats the Napoleonic school bully in tactical games, or wins special affection from fellow soldier Hailee Steinfeld.

But this story of a growing boy struggling with his intellectual gifts and emotional curses finds itself planted clumsily in the middle of a movie that wants to be about something else. Even if you’ve read the book, or heard the “big reveal” from loud-mouthed friends of yours who don’t revere spoiler etiquette, you’ll be surprised by the ending for Ender. Because it comes out of nowhere.

The character’s emotional journey is bound so tenuously to the narrative around him that you’ll be confused at exactly what is going on when the two collide. You’ll question whether or not you nodded during a scene that might have tied everything together, or challenge your own capacity for picking up subtle signals. Don’t be so hard on yourself; Ender’s Game wants to conquer two worlds (one inside its hero, the other outside its spaceships), but doesn’t dive far enough into either to make it so. The script only scratches the surface of its science-fiction backdrop, and only the broadest of strokes are painted with Ender — he’s not a complex enough character to warrant the psychological suspension of disbelief that the film eventually asks of its viewer.

But he doesn’t need to be, nor do these tasks really need to be conquered, for Ender’s Game to be a good time. With just enough of a sob story to ground the movie, a surprisingly warm performance by the larger-than-life headmaster (Harrison Ford) — that is, when he’s not standing up slowly and peering in awe directly through the camera — and, most importantly, all the anti-gravity fun you can ask for, Ender’s Game works just fine for anyone looking to float free from the world for two hours.