'Ender's Game' (2013) Movie Review

Ender's Game movie review
Asa Butterfield in Ender's Game
Photo: Summit Entertainment

Based on the series of novels by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game begins by telling a story of the past wherein an alien race called the Formics (bug-like creatures reminiscent of the aliens in Starship Troopers) attempted to colonize Earth. The citizens of Earth fought back and won (naturally). Since then humans have been building an army to not only protect themselves from future attacks, but to seek out the Formics and ensure they will never attack again. The army will be made of children, whose naiveté and want to succeed and impress makes them far better candidates than any adult that may question command. In this story, Ender Wiggins is the child chosen to lead said army against the aliens.

Ender's Game
Grade: C+

Ender's Game"Ender's Game" is a Summit Entertainment release, directed by Gavin Hood and is rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material. The running time is .

The cast includes Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, Viola Davis, Nonso Anozie and Moises Arias.

Hugo star Asa Butterfield plays Ender, an aggressive yet compassionate boy referred to as a "third" as it is apparently frowned upon for a family to have more than one child. Children are brought up to want to excel as Battle School trainees and the Wiggins family has already seen its first two children and their father fail. Ender shows promise and is lauded for his strategic ability by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) who decides Ender just may be the boy to "save" the human race.

Here lies the strange balancing act Ender's Game attempts, and largely fails in the early going, before hoping to gain back the audience's trust late with middling success. Beyond the dilemma of using children as soldiers, the decision to wipe out an entire alien race without first making an attempt to make peace becomes a major thematic sticking point. It's a dark concept, which is why the childish, amateur nature of the first two acts is a bit unbearable. It makes sense the kids would behave like kids, but the dialogue is so awful and forced the characters appear to have either grown up too fast or not at all and are reciting lines they've seen in bad movies rather than anything that could be considered natural.

Added to this, Ender is bullied by a rash of envious children that want to beat him up to either save face or prove some kind of point, and while they are mostly your stereotypical bullies, Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer) as the Salamander squadron leader comes along at a point we've already seen Ender bullied by two other children. Enough is enough and wow does Arias come across as an actor trying way too hard.

At the same time, Ender meets fellow Battle School trainee, and Salamander soldier, Petra (True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld) and if as much time was spent building their friendship as is spent bullying Ender it's a friendship that wouldn't have seemed so forced. As it is Steinfeld must immediately come to Ender's cause. In the end both are decent enough actors to make it work, but not without some cringe-worthy scenes beforehand.

The training the kids go through is essentially Lazer Tag in zero-G, where the combatants work as teams to proclaim victory. Sold as a game, and therefore no real world consequences exist, the idea of sacrificing yourself for the greater good is impressed upon the trainees early and celebrated. Obviously this continues the dark and murky path to the end goal and I can see what writer-director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) was attempting to do in making the first half more childish and the second half more serious and adult, but a lot of the dialogue is too clunky and weighty, tailor-made for a Nickelodeon young adult TV series rather than a feature film.

What worked a little more than it probably should have was Harrison Ford as Graff, a man hellbent on the destruction of the Formics who takes the utmost advantage of the children he's training, understanding full well the manipulative tactics they're taking and convinced himself it's for the greater good. As an actor Ford seems tired and uninterested, but these are characteristics that seem to work for this character.

Surprisingly, I also thought composer Steve Jablonsky's score served several of the scenes quite well. There is still a lot of Transformers in what he's doing, which is to say some of it is overly loud and intrusive, but a lot of his music serves the film well.

With a budget north of $100 million, a lot of money appears to be up on the screen in terms of visual effects and I was quite surprised to see effects house Digital Domain co-produced the feature, it's not a first in the highly competitive effects industry, but it's a risk. The entire third act is essentially one big visual effect as Ender leads his team of soldiers in training sequences meant to prepare them for the coming war.

There's something of a video game approach to the entire film, which is apt considering the narrative, but it also makes the heavy-handed finale a little questionable in terms of how it's all handled.

Ender's Game is clearly an attempt to jumpstart yet another young adult franchise, but I'm not sure this is a franchise with enough initial support to propel it too far into the future and I'm not sure the film is good enough to inspire many newcomers. The story is fascinating and the themes and modern world correlation are definitely relevant to today, but the project overall isn't good enough to support it all. If audiences view it anything like I did, they'll likely be intrigued by the narrative, but understand it could have been handled a little better and by the time the end comes around and it's made clear the intention is to make several of these films it's only proper to feel cheated at the assumption we didn't come to see just one movie, but are already anticipating more.

Let this be a lesson to filmmakers, prove yourself first and only then expect the audience wants to continue living in your world. Otherwise you just come across as arrogant and greedy, an all-too-obvious description of today's Hollywood.


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More Reviews
  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    c+ = netflix

    • BradyD

      Agreed. I didn't have much enthusiasm for this movie in the first place.

    • Danathar

      It's trending 69-70% on rotten tomatoes.

      Generally speaking I've found anything above 60% to be decent at the theaters.

      • BradyD

        Yeah I saw that and I agree. It gives me hope that the movie is worth a watch but I don't know if it's worth a trip to the theaters. It might suffice for $5 movie Tuesday. It just might.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

          My secret for seeing lots of movies cheaply is to always go before noon. Then they're always around $5 :)

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

            Same here. We have $4 mornings and $5 Tuesdays.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

    Moises Arias was a big part of why I hated The Kings of Summer. Great.

    Too bad to hear a great novel wasn't adapted into a great movie, but I'll probably still go see it this weekend to see what I think. If a sequel does get greenlit, I'll be very interested to see if it stays faithful to the second book Speaker for the Dead. It's also a great novel, but very different from the first and pretty much the antithesis of an action blockbuster. It would have a vibe closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey if anything (now if only they could get a Kubrick-caliber director...)

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Corbin/ Corbin

    I did like the book, so I'll probably see it. But it's disappointing to read that it wasn't a great movie, like it could've been.

  • literatebrit

    So I guess you really did go over my guess of C-. Personally I don't see this movie getting a franchise. As you said the books are not well known enough and the movie doesn't seem like it was good enough to make up for that. Unlike say, The Hunger Games, which even if the movie had been utter crap likely still would've gotten a sequel because of the huge fandom. Also I only remember Moises Arias as being a really weird looking kid that (I think?) had a Disney Channel show.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      The books were very popular in their day as I understand, and are still frequently assigned reading in school. It's just that they came out long before the current era of online frenzy and raving fandom that's caused Twilight and The Hunger Games to saturate pop culture.

    • Danathar

      I'm not sure how they could BE a franchise.

      The books following the Bean character could, the Ender line of books are not war novels like this one. In fact the rest of the Ender books are so completely different that it's been said they are un-filmable.

      The next book in the series (Ender line) is called "Xenocide" and is most definitely NOT a young adult book like Ender's game.

      • literatebrit

        Yeah I agree. I honestly thought Ender's Game itself might be unfilmable because of the young protagonist and the weird stuff that goes on.

        • Peter Wiggin

          The next book is actually Speaker for the Dead. Ender in Exile is the direct sequel to Ender's Game but was written recently. Then Xenocide and finally Children of the Mind.

  • http://www.silverscreenriot.com SmartFilm

    There were definitely some hefty moral consequences that the film explored but it was just a little too clunky in doing it. Also, I didn't read the book but the ending is just too out of left field and definitely begs for that sequel.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      The ending kind of comes out of left field in the book too, but it led the sequel in an interesting direction. Whether that will happen in the world of movies, who knows.

    • Natasha Jeffery

      Ender’s game kinda a surprised me in many ways …here is why

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

    Good review Brad. It only enforced my feelings that this was going to be bad movie.

  • PJ Edwards

    There's something of a video game approach to the entire film, which is apt considering the narrative, but it also makes the heavy-handed finale a little questionable in terms of how it's all handled.
    Every single review I have read talks about this finale, whether they liked it or not. I don't really blame them as it kind of just ruins the film but I still thought that 99% of the film was fun, thrilling, and engaging. It's a bit of a Hungers Games rip off and there are some slight shades of Gravity. If it didn't have that ending I would give it a B+.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      The book was written in the '80s so I'm not sure how it could be a Hunger Games ripoff.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I would have said more and given further reason, but I don't want to spoil anything. If anything, the third act is the best part, but it is so clumsy in getting there it's almost tripping over itself to get to the part of the movie they really wanted us to watch.

    • patrick

      derp, this book is over 20 years old, how old do you think hunger games is?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/maja/ maja

    A slightly more positive review than I expected considering the trailer and early buzz. A possible rental but will probably skip it.

    • dslacker

      The trailer I saw was so awful I couldn't finish it. No hope at all for the film.

    • vermithrax_pejorative

      I agree. I was expecting something in the "D" range from Brad considering what was shown in the trailers. I don't see myself even renting this one.

  • Danathar

    I'm not sure what the author meant by "and it's made clear the intention is to make several of these films it's only proper to feel cheated at the assumption we didn't come to see just one movie, but are already anticipating more."

    The ending was dictated by what happened in the book, not the movie. In fact, the next book in the series is completely un-filmable and is not a space war film.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      I wish they actually would film Speaker for the Dead. It would make for a movie that's quite different from anything else we're seeing these days. But you're probably right that it would be considered unfilmable, just since it doesn't fit into the formulas of what studios think audiences want.

      • Danathar

        thanks. I said Xenocide in another post meaning speaker, completely got my titles mixed up :)

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      This is a movie review, not a book review.

  • Danathar

    It would be really interesting for the reviewer to read the book and then comment again. It's obvious he didn't read it before watching the film (and that's a GOOD thing), but many of the choices especially the ending had nothing to do with sequals wanting to be written.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I will direct you to #8 on my list of the Top Ten List of Worst Excuses Made for 'Bad' Movies (click here)

    • Kieran Sturt

      That's not the point. Just because it's in the book, doesn't justify it not working in the movie.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Hrtn4Sqrtn/ Hrtn4Sqrtn

    The marketing for this movie was terrible. I'm a huge fan of the book so I will be seeing it, but if I had never read it there is no way I would see this. Honestly a C+ is better than I was expecting.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      Ender's Game the book actually has a plot too complex to be summed up in 10 seconds. That must give marketers nightmares.

  • http://www.twitter.com/GregDinskisk GregDinskisk

    I'm a little more negative about this than you are, I think... C- for me... The book is very, very dense, and the film needed time to expand upon ideas more.

    And, also, an editor for the awful, awful dialogue.

  • http://www.digitalkebab.com Shaun Heenan

    I was never in love with the original book. I think from the second book onwards the series is full of interesting, totally unfilmable ideas. I can't imagine they'll be able to make the rest of them no matter how well this does. I'd like to be wrong about that.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ryguy815/ Ryguy815

    Probably a rental for me.

  • DamianR

    I recommend reading the book before watching this movie, as it seems the person giving the review didn't. There are a few incorrect thing's said in the above review but I will only point out one major one. The children only seem to have grown up too fast because they are very intelligent, have a very large vocabulary and think certain way's. They live in a world where some people would marry and have children to have amazing genetic outcomes, if the military believed they would be of great benefit to them or saw something in them that other normal children didn't have they would be chosen for Battle School.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      If Brad missed those points in the movie it probably means the movie didn't make them clear. Plus clunky dialogue can still be clunky even if there's an in-universe reason for the clunkiness.

      P.S. if you stick around to make more comments on this site, I expect Brad wouldn't mind if you call him Brad rather than "the person giving the review" (talk about clunky :P).

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I guess I will do this again and direct you to #8 on my list of the Top Ten List of Worst Excuses Made for 'Bad' Movies (click here).

    • http://imqwerty.wordpress.com/ Jordan B.

      Reading Ender's Game shouldn't be a prerequisite to seeing the movie. Good adaptations stand on their own and don't need to rely on an audience's familiarity with the source material.

  • James Smith

    It's a much better movie than your review suggests and I think your sticking point is revealed in the end. Asa gives a great performance and I do think this movie should be seen on the big screen

  • Kurt

    Wow, if you haven't read the books, I could see why you could walk away feeling this way...Having read the books, this movie was amazing and well put together considering it was only 2 hours long. I get the impression the author of this piece has not read he books, so if you have read the books, disregard this review...it is shit. Moral of the story is, if you haven't read the book(what the hell is wrong with you) you may miss a lot of the points in t movie or think it is clunky. Having read the books, you will enjoy this movie.

    • Stonecutter

      This is such an insane idea that you are supposed to be doing outside research to understand a movie. Yes, I've read the book, but that was 15 years ago and the only thing I remembered was the end twist (which was handled terribly in the movie) so most of this movie came off as unexplained. People became friends, made enemies, and resolved problems with almost no reasoning. My girlfriend had read the book recently so after the movie I spent half an hour asking her questions to try and figure out why anyone did anything, which was apparently all explained in the book.

      Bottom line is, if you can't make a movie have a coherent plot with developed characters without telling the audience to "just go read the book, that will have it make sense" then you shouldn't make the movie.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Buddy/ Buddy

    Just watched this movie couple of days ago and watching it again for second time just now.
    I think this was solid movie. The visual was quite good and some shot was amazing (the training room scene).
    The story is flowing nicely and it might quite difficult for some non-regular moviegoers but i can say people understand the story (third act twist)..
    All the actors is doing the best they can, Asa Butterfield nailed Ender character well. (although Viola Davis and Hailee Steinfeld was very under used in the movie).
    The quirkiness and the awkward dialog I can tell because of Ender's personal character. I could say he's quite introvert in some way but has no problem to communicate with other people. His mind is always too calculated and it reflect in his words and action.
    As a person who never ever read the book before, i can grade this movie solid B.
    The marketing team did no justice in the trailer. This movie definitely is one of movie that has bad misleading trailer (complete reverse with Tron Legacy, awesome trailer, bad movie).
    If this movie marketed well, it will surely do better and it deserve so.
    PS: Watch this on big screen.

    Regards from Indonesia.

  • Preston Bullard

    It's frowned upon to have more than two kids, not one... Read the book you twat.

    This movie sucked ass. i don't fanboy over much, but you just fucked up one of the best books ever written.