The plot follows a lot of the traditional sci-fi tropes: the outsider who becomes the hero, his training to get there, the ragtag bunch of misfits who help the hero and so on. There has been a war against the Formics (ant/mantis type creatures) which had decimated Earth and so, to ensure it doesn't happen again, children are trained to become military tacticians as their minds are more open. And so we come to Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a third child who is recruited by Colonel Hiram Graff (Harrison Ford) to train to become an officer.
Ender is basically used as a human guinea pig, put into situations to see how he deals with frustration, anger and so on. His brother was too violent, his sister too compassionate- Ender is supposed to be the balance between the two. It's a decent enough central performance by Butterfield but I found the character of Ender difficult to empathise with, which is a shame- he is so mistreated throughout that it almost feels like kicking a puppy not to like him.
Other performances are similarly decent enough- Ford is good as the grizzled old Colonel, whilst there's a lovely turn by Viola Davis as Major Anderson. Ben Kingsley pops up towards the end, but his accent wanders all across the shop- firstly sounding South African before landing in New Zealand but occasionally lapsing into Cockney. Hailee Steinfeld's not bad as the token female cadet Petra, but the jury's still out on whether there was supposed to be a romance subplot or not- it feels like there should have been and some of the signs were there, but it wasn't completed. Abigail Breslin turns in a nice cameo as Ender's sister Valentine, doing well with what she's given. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and some of the pseudo-philosophical discourse (especially between Ender and his sister) just comes across as pretentious- although that could as easily be a fault in the original text as with the script.
It's a visually impressive film throughout and the filmmakers get some extra kudos for resisting the urge to post-render this into 3D. The scenes in the Battle Room (the training room) are all shot well and the zero-gravity element is handled well. There's also a stunning piece of physical creature work towards the end which is sublime but sadly underused.
There's a twist towards the end of the film that has the potential to absolutely knock you sideways- unless, like me, you guess it. To be fair, it isn't telegraphed a mile off. As I watched, a thought entered my mind and it was proved right. It raises a couple of interesting questions but also added to the slightly disturbing aftertaste I experienced..
Ender's Game is an ambitious film but is lacking a killer blow. Visually stunning but a bit weak in the script, the acting is perfectly serviceable but nothing stunning. Better than merely average but far from superb.
Rating: 3 out of 5