Ender's Game

Mean teen killing machine
Gavin Hood
Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis
The Setup: 
Child rises to command alien-killing forces.

I was ALL psyched to see this in 3D, as it seemed to have extremely complex special effects that would look amazing, and also I am pretty much inclined to like anything sci-fi. Then--bait and switch! I know for a fact I saw ads for this in 3D, and seeing the movie, it was obviously created to be seen that way, with lots of complex layers and oodles of things coming at you, but recently 3D has been drawing diminishing returns at the box office, and this film is not necessarily as easy a sell as some other things, and poof: all of a sudden, no 3D option. Bastards! Why don't they just have a special 3D showing in like one theater per city? It could be like IMAX. Anyway, we got cheated out of our 3D version, and this is one film that really would have benefitted from it. Jerks.

This movie also comes with controversy because of the author's anti-gay and anti-gay-marriage views, which, honestly, I just don't care that much about. The guy is a Mormon, so that would be consistent with his beliefs, and as far as I know, people in this country are entitled to their beliefs? Regardless, due to the age of his movie deal, he won't get any money from the movie, although obviously it'll give a sales bump to his book.

Alrighty then! This movie, despite obviously having more ideas than it is equipped to deal with in a two-hour blockbuster, still has more ideas than most contemporary sci-fi films. In the future, mankind gets attacked by ant-like aliens, called Formics, who cause vast destruction before they are finally routed. But, because we fear that they will one day return, Earth has devoted almost all of its resources to building an army to defend us. This army, for reasons that are rather shortchanged, consists of children. They train to join the military, a status which is highly prized and highly competitive. Our hero, Ender Wiggin, is closely watched by Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff and Viola Davis as Major Anderson. He is bullied, and at a certain point beats the bully so bad, long after he has won the skirmish, that he puts him in the hospital, on the logic that by "destroying" his foe, he eliminates the chances of being attacked again. Instant promotion! They remove his 24/7 monitoring, which makes him think he's been rejected by the program--but they're just testing how he deals with rejection. There's a short visit with his family, including his sister whom he is close to, and his brother, who is a mega-jerk [and WAY underdeveloped, obviously just there because he'll show up in sequels], then: he's accepted into the program, and sent to training at a space station in Earth's orbit.

Here is where the 3D would have started to be really welcome, as we have a giant clear geodesic sphere with Earth below that they play this training/strategy game in. It's presented well enough that we can get into the strategy behind winning the game, which rescues it from being tedious movie-stoppers, in the vein of those infernal broom-soccer games in Harry Potter, whatever they were called. We can also see that Ender is not just smart, but has no problem building his strategy around sacrificing his teammates in order to win. He also plays an iPad video game in which he displays uncommon viciousness--and is immediately rewarded with promotion.

Meanwhile Graff is excited by Ender's killer instinct and virtually shouts "That's my boy!" every time he displays ruthlessness, while Anderson is on hand only to tut-tut at the state of this boy's consciousness and voice reservations about his warmongering. Ender continued to be bullied--a thread that needs further development, as we see him making friends and all, then next scene sitting all alone at the lunch table--and at one point nearly kills a guy who was giving him a hard time. Apparently in the novel, he actually kills the kid. He's also starting to realize his own power, and slowly distancing himself from Graff.

In the final third, Ender graduates from battle school to battle simulations, and again--would have been amazing in 3D. Now here I'm going to tell you the ending, because it's interesting to discuss, but again, it is the ending, so if you don't want to know...

Ender is going into the hardest of the simulations, and all of the military is on hand to watch. He devises a strategy that sacrifices all of his support ships in order to protect his one main ship, and fires a shot that destroys the entire alien planet, obliterating the entire race. Then: they tell him it wasn't a simulation, it was actual battle, and he just actually "won" the war for them. But Ender feels totally betrayed--he wouldn't have sacrificed the other ships had he known there were real men in them [a point totally obscured by the rest of the film, where we've been told it's all remote-cpntrolled drones, etc.], and that he just wiped out an entire race [the word "genocide" is deployed] when they actually haven't attacked since that first time, and there was no indication that they would again.

So then you think "That was an odd ending, because we were less involved, thinking it was another simulation, only later finding out THAT was the war," but there's a little coda, where Ender meets an alien in person, and the effects here are very impressive: the alien has a very tactile, translucent look. Ender breaks with the army and goes off toward the eventual sequels.

So gee, wow, more ideas than expected. The movie floats for a good long while not seeming to question Graff's rewarding of Ender's ruthlessness and aggression [not to mention the whole concept of children as warriors], but keeping enough distance so that we can wonder about it, then boom, full-on reversal that casts it all in a different light and directly asks us to question everything we've seen. And the development of character and progression of ideas up to this point has been consistent and strong enough to support it all. This asks us to consider somewhat similar questions to Star Trek Into Darkness, about the elimination of a race and pre-emptive war, only there the ideas were all confined to the first hour, before it goes mostly action and character, whereas this really is, throughout, a delivery system for interesting and timely ideas, and it works. You get some good action and lots of lovely effects, but the main thing you leave with are the concepts and questions raised. Which is what I want from my sci-fi.

That said, it is quite apparent that a great deal is being shortchanged or just underdeveloped. One has the feeling that this would be best suited to a six-hour miniseries. And then the issue of our not knowing that the climax was the climax until it's over. The performances are fine, everyone is up to the task but no one stands out as great, although I really appreciate that they let Ford use his natural charm in the service of a character with serious and complex moral deficiencies. And for the last time, the effects are top-notch and very minutely detailed, and it's a shame we couldn't have seen them in the 3D they were intended for.

So no, it's not Solaris, but it's serious sci-fi with complicated and interesting ideas, and it has the strength to lead with its ideas, a rarity at the multiplex. I say go.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, if you like serious, concept-based sci-fi, and liking pretty effects doesn't hurt either.