Rating: 2.5 out of 5

The movie is set in the future after an unearthly war decimated millions of people the on planet Earth by an alien threat. Eventually, Earth’s united military forces defeat the extraterrestrial enemy; however, Earth leaders believe this is only a temporary reprieve. Evidence exists that indicates another war is in the future and the Earth’s leaders have no intention of waiting for the enemy to make the first move. It seems that there must be a shortfall of young men and women for the officer corps because, in this story, the military is recruiting pre-teens as officer candidates.     

Ender's GameCredit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

The movie is based on the 1985 science fiction novel, Ender’s Game, written by Orson S. Card. The movie and the book place the Earth population in conflict with an insect-form of alien race referred to as the “Buggers.” 

Actors and characters

Asa Butterfield plays the protagonist, Ender Wiggin – a young boy who hopes to be a accepted into Battle and Command School as a future military officer. Although he never measured up in the past to the required standards, he eventually gets the attention of the stern yet idealist Harrison Ford in the role of Colonel Graff.

Graff sees something special in the young boy: he sees Ender as the “chosen one” or as he states in the film, “the one.” Harrison Ford presents us a gruff no-nonsense military leader and tactician tasked to find and train (very) young officers to serve in the next great battle against an alien threat. Ford’s character has a vision of what is needed for the next great battle, a battle he wants to ensure is the last one fought with this particular alien threat. Once Graff has set his eyes on his new young protégé Ender, the boy’s future is determined. Graff will push and push until the boy is ready to face the enemy and make life and death decisions in combat. 

Viola Davis (star of TV series How to Get Away with Murder) plays Major Gwen Anderson the Academy’s training officer and cadet evaluator. Anderson recognizes Ender’s talent, yet she never forgets that this cadet is still a child and susceptible to psychological damage if the training goes too far. Davis and Ford display the usual bantering back and forth as they struggle with the debate over Ender’s readiness for combat leadership against the potential for his long-term mental sanity. Ford is only concerned with the short-term needs of a mission that is quickly approaching and secret to the movie viewers until the late half of the film.  

Ben Kingsley is Mazer Rackham; an international hero of the Earth that everyone, except the academy staff, believes is dead from the previous war with the aliens. Mazer makes himself known to the cadets as one of their instructors. Although Kingsley is an excellent actor, his portrayal of the heroic tattooed face Rackham, is awkward. In many respects his character seems less the hero with great knowledge to impart to future military leaders than that of a man that was in the right place at the right time to do the necessary thing, and came out of it a little emotionally damaged. Then again, that may have been the point of how he portrays his character: exposed to extreme circumstances with requiring extreme actions with devastating results can have an adverse effect on even the most skilled warrior no matter how hard they train or how well they prepare for battle.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Ender’s fellow candidate and new-found friend, Petra Arkanian. Once Petra recognizes that Ender is being alienated by a few cadets that want him to fail, she takes it upon herself to coach him the skills he will need to survive the zero gravity war game arena, as well as some of the hand-to-hand combat techniques he was lacking. Ender is a quick study and, with Petra’s help, learns to adapt those skill beyond the traditionally course instruction.     

A Mixed Bag of Fun

There is your typical space academy setting, filled with kids being whipped into shape as future warrior leaders. We also find our kid on kid conflict, bullying, intimidation, and then a few cadets that actually try to help each other and work together. They call this kiddy academy a Battle School – Command School; meaning that there is a progression for those cadets who demonstrate the desired leadership skills to step-up into significant leadership roles.

There is a lot of zero gravity war game fun intended to teach the cadets small unit tactics as well as team-work and problem solving. Ender has a few challenges in an interesting online style video game that we never see any other kid have to solve. This video game gives the movie viewer, and Ender’s evaluator Major Anderson, a hint to the young lad’s psyche when challenged to what seems to be unwinnable circumstances. This also leads to some kind of mental connection with the alien leader that is never really explained, except that without this mental link the end of the film would not work. Still, it’s a weakness in the story line. In researching the original background for the novel, this story was actually meant to set-up for Ender’s character and situation for a future book in the Ender’s series. So I guess we just have to roll with that; it would have been nice for the movie to hint or throw us a bone on what and why Ender has the psychic connection with the Buggers.   

In many respects this is really not a bad movie for teens and pre-teens of ages 10-17; however, adult supervision might be helpful. Not because the film is overly violent, bloody or contains nudity – not at all – this is not that kind of film. The experience that everyday kids go through in real life is not all that different from the experience in the movie; kids go to school and they face bullies, meet kids that are meek and follow the leader; while other kids stand-up for themselves in the face of any challenge. Kids deal with teachers that are overly pushy while other teachers are truly concerned with the students’ future survival as an adult. The zero-gravity arena is no different than school sports and opportunities team work activities.

Where things get a bit dicey is a fight between Ender and a bully that goes very wrong. The other event comes near the end during the movies climax, I won’t give anymore away; however, the events can be a little traumatic when kept in the perspective intended by the story’s author.

This movie would never make my top ten list but it still might be a good weekend movie for young people when sitting with friends.