‘Ender’s Game’ Review Roundup: Thought-Provoking Sci-Fi For Both Kids and Adults

Bryan Enk
Movie Talk

Things are certainly looking up for "Ender's Game," as early reviews are pretty positive for the big-budget sci-fi film adapted from Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel. The story revolves around the fact that the fate of humankind has been placed in the hands of an ace space warrior who hasn't even hit puberty yet.

"Ender's Game" seemed all but doomed upon the recent controversy involving Card's outspoken views against gay rights. It hasn't helped that recent young adult book-to-screen adaptations such as "Beautiful Creatures," "The Host," and "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" have all flopped pretty hard at the box office.

However, while Summit Entertainment may not quite have their new "Twilight" with "Ender's Game," it's at least a film being praised for its thematic maturity. Like the first "The Hunger Games" installment, "Ender's" explores complex issues, including the consequences of violence and maintaining humanity and morality during wartime with intelligence and insight. Many critcs are saying it delivers a "smart" sci-fi adventure that can be appreciated by both children and their parents.

The film takes place in a future world in which kids are being trained for space battle by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) in preparation for the next attack by an ant-like alien race known as the Formics. Graff in particular is looking for 'the One,' a child with superior instincts who might end up being the savior of the human race — and who might very well be Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a cadet with a lot to prove due to his unimposing physique and for being ostracized as the third child in a society that limits families to only two offspring.

It's like "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," and "The Matrix" all rolled into one (and those pesky Formix look a lot like the aliens in "District 9"). But amidst all the wow-wee training sequences and white-knuckle battle scenes, the film at the same time manages to deliver a "higher pedagogical message about tolerance, empathy, and coping under pressure," according to Peter Debruge at Variety. Debruge also writes that this "anti-bullying allegory" contains an "open-ended epilogue about the consequences of Ender’s actions — that kids may come away from it better equipped to handle conflict on an interpersonal scale."

Tom Huddleston of Time Out London agrees, writing that "the cast is strong, the effects well-designed, and the script's interest in how violence influences and inspires children is timely and insightful," resulting in a film that's "fitfully engaging and endearingly odd."

Matt Mueller of Total Film is impressed with the thematic heftiness of the film as well — and hopes that Ender will be back for a second mission. "What had been buzzing along as a pint-sized 'Taps' becomes far harsher, hurling out intriguing questions about leadership, compassion and the psychic toll of winning at all costs," he writes. "It's this injection of complexity that, whatever the icky personal politics of its creator, makes you hope it isn't game over for Ender after this first round."

However, all of that "complexity" might actually be a little too much, according to some other critics. Todd Gilchrist of The Wrap says that while the film is "designed to attract large numbers of kids," many of them will "miss the intricacies of its underlying message." Not that that's a bad thing, though, as he writes that "those deeper themes occasionally make the film feel like a bit of a joyless slog."

Brian Viner of Daily Mail somewhat agrees, saying that "most youngsters will love it, if only for the thesis that we grown-ups should hand them the controls," with Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian pointing out that "the apocalyptic finale indicates that it's bitten off considerably more than it can chew in terms of ideas." Tim Grierson of ScreenDaily says that it definitely earns an A for effort, though, as the film's "bolder ambitions aren’t always realized" but that "it's a tribute to director Gavin Hood that the film aspires to be a thoughtful, awe-inspiring emotional epic as well as an effects-driven spectacle."

Critics seem to be of one mind when it comes to Asa Butterfield's performance as tween hero Ender Wiggin. Peter Debruge of Variety affectionately writes that the young actor "has grown into his big blue eyes, if not the rest of his body, since 'Hugo'" and that he makes "ideal casting for Ender." Catherine Bray of Film4 notes his "compellingly icy lead performance" and Tim Robey of The Telegraph, who admits he wasn't a fan of Butterfield's performance as the title character in "Hugo," says the young actor "gives a much more intrepid and complex performance as Ender Wiggin."

Meanwhile, Brian Viner of Daily Mail calls Butterfield "excellent" and Tim Grierson of ScreenDaily is perhaps the most impressed, writing that he "projects an almost inhuman stillness that suggests Ender’s cold brilliance, which is crucial since that quality is precisely why Graff thinks so highly of him: The boy takes great pride in his talent for analytical decision-making, sometimes at the expense of compassion."

"Ender's Game" opens on November 1.