Director: Gavin Hood; Screenwriters: Gavin Hood; Starring: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis; Running time: 114 mins; Certificate: 12A
They say any press is good press, but pity the marketing team who have to promote Ender's Game after author Orson Scott Card's unfortunate outbursts about same-sex marriage.
Art and the artist's dunderheaded views should probably be separated in this instance, because Gavin Hood's resulting film doesn't subscribe to its creator's thinking - this is a sci-fi blockbuster that attempts to merge intelligent ideas with Hollywood spectacle. Empathy, understanding and knowing your enemy are the film's overriding mantras, although in a twisted irony the film's own arch-nemesis appears to be Card.
Leading it all is British actor Asa Butterfield as Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin, whose highly strategic mind makes him an ideal candidate to join the International Fleet, a military organisation tasked with protecting the Earth from the Formics, an alien race who attacked the planet some years earlier. Children are viewed as more intuitive and malleable, and their video-game-influenced dexterity makes them better candidates in the eyes of the fleet.
Ender's older siblings flirted with joining, but brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) was deemed too violent and sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) had too much compassion. Ender needs to strike a balance between both, and under the watchful eyes of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) he's groomed to lead an attack against the enemy.
Ender makes fast progress through the training, which includes zero gravity exercises in a 'Battle Room' with fellow recruits. Conflict emerges early when he establishes a bond with Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), much to the chagrin of her temperamental commanding officer Bonzo (Moises Arias). Ben Kingsley pops up late in the day as legendary pilot Mazer Rackham, a harsher mentor than Graff but one whose presence is memorable thanks to a "Peeter Jecksen" Kiwi accent and Maori face paint.
With Card's novel as the source, Hood clearly has a lot of ground to cover and it feels like sacrifices have been made in the wrong places. Too much screen time is given to scenes of military training and back-and-forths between Ford and Davis or Kingsley, debating Ender's suitability as a leader. A lot of these sequences feel like redundant filler until the film really begins to make its point in the final act.
"Star Wars meets Harry Potter" proclaims the poster, but with its children thrown into life-and-death scenarios and its assembling of a team of misfits to do battle in space it perhaps feels more closely aligned with The Hunger Games and JJ Abrams's first Star Trek (it shares creative talent in the form of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman). It never reaches the heights of either, but it should be admired for attempting to splice a grey-area morality play into a CGI space adventure.