This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 8th December 2013
Apparently Harry Potter is bespectacled because his creator, J. K. Rowling, was fed up with never seeing a hero wearing glasses. In keeping with the ethos that heroes come in many forms, young Ender Wiggin (sporting a bullyable name as well as a wispy physique) is not only the brains of the outfit, but proves to be the brawn as well.
As the lead in Orson Scott Card’s eponymous novel, Ender’s character is an object lesson for today’s youth – instead of embracing the weapons-skilled Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, they can turn their allegiance to a preternaturally talented man-child who favours strategy over bloodshed. As played with big blue-eyed charm by Asa Butterfield (Hugo, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), Ender makes a surprisingly engaging protagonist – his trials and tribulations mix teenage concerns about popularity with the invidious honour that his brilliance at videogames makes him humankind’s last hope in its fight for survival against an alien species.
South African director Gavin Hood has followed serious films like Tsotsi and Rendition with his own adaptation of Card’s popular teen novel, and with echoes of Tron: Legacy in its aesthetic and a grown-up orchestral score, Ender’s Game works pretty well for adults, too. Granted, the plotting is predictable, but the telling is assured. Interestingly, all the action happens on board the spaceship where Earth’s brightest kids are training at Battle School, switching the usual sci-fi tropes of starship explosions and alien shootouts for beautifully gentle, balletic battle scenes that favour mind over body.
Wimpy, weedy Butterfield comes off as smart and steely, more than holding his own in scenes with Harrison Ford and the great Sir Ben Kingsley (rendered slightly less great by an unconvincing South African/New Zealand accent and a brief backstory purporting Maori parentage). Oscar nominee Viola Davis steps in to provide maternal support but this film isn’t ultimately about the adults. Serious teen actors Hailee Steinfeld (who made such an impression in True Grit) and stalwart Abigail Breslin fill out the youthful cast, which is at least one concession when at the end it is made patently clear that Ender’s game is far from over.