If there’s one thing to be said of Harrison Ford, now one of the highest grossing Hollywood actors of all time, it’s that the man knows how to pick a project. Having starred in the likes of George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, you’d certainly be interested forgiven for trusting his judgement in this field; although his latest endeavour, the all-too formulaic Ender’s Game (2013), is hardly one of his more memorable outings. Adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, we follow Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a talented young boy handpicked by Colonel Graff (Ford) to save the human race from a hostile invading alien force.
Despite being bullied at school, Ender is recruited for the military after displaying an aptitude for using his initiative in the face of adversity. Deserting his family to enrol in a training course in outer space, he steadily learns all the skills necessary under the guidance of both Graff, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) war hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). Though the future of mankind is evidently at stake, the exact motives behind the impending battle are somewhat ambiguous as the boy questions exactly what it is he’s got himself involved in. Ender’s Game has a dark undercurrent which complements the narrative effectively, but the enemy is conspicuous in its absence: a race of characterless, insectoid raiders.
Intriguingly, the vast majority of Ender’s Game’s antagonists are actually human as we explore themes such as jealousy and competitiveness amongst our young trainees. Yet, this ambiguity makes it difficult to feel any empathy when we don’t know who we’re fighting and what their motives are. You can see what Hood is trying to achieve – placing us in our protagonist’s shoes – but it makes for a largely detached narrative arc. Meanwhile, Butterfield certainly impresses as Ender, despite his questionable casting as a potential war hero. The ‘underdog’ tale may be a tried-and-tested one, but as humanity prepares for a destructive war against an otherworldly species, a timorous teenager – now commander-in-chief – wouldn’t exactly fill you with confidence.
It also doesn’t help that Ender’s rise to prominence and the faith entrusted in him by his elders comes with a degree of contrivance, as they seem to judge his potential by how he copes in simulations. In fact, when the squadron of young fighters start practising in one particular scene, it does look terribly like a Friday night at your local Laser Quest. Ender’s Game is by no means a terrible film, but it struggles to stand out from the blockbuster field, too reverential to the genre at hand and seemingly unwilling to take any real risks. It doesn’t help that it comes out so close to the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Gravity. Once you’ve seen how innovative and minimalist sci-fi can be, other offerings simply pale in comparison.