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Remembering Ender’s Game, the Sci-Fi Box Office Bomb That Wasn’t (All) Bad

Harrison Ford leads an army of kids into battle against alien ants.

By Benjamin Bullard
Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) holds his hands up in concentration in Enders Game (2013).

Who is Ender’s Game for? Is it for kids? There’re certainly a lot of those in this 2013 sci-fi war spectacle (streaming here on Peacock) where the world’s exceptional youth are honed into ace space soldiers.

Is Ender’s Game for adults? The themes are there for it, with a heavy thread of ethical issues (like child fighters and interplanetary genocide) weaving through its nearly two-hour runtime. Is it for Harrison Ford filmography completionists? Perhaps — because the nerdy-sounding stuff Ford says in Ender’s Game is light years more absurd and silly than any script material he ever groused about in Star Wars.

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Based on author Orson Scott Card’s 1985 fan-favorite novel about Earth’s all-out effort to thwart an invading alien species, Ender’s Game is an outlying curiosity of a science fiction movie. On the one hand, it looks incredible, boasting some of the sweetest CGI-rendered vistas and special space effects to be found anywhere this side of the Y2K panic. On the other hand, it sorta lacks a soul: It’s dull, self-serious, presumptuously packed with cheap and easy moralizing, and fixated on the very part of its ready-for-war space story that most other sci-fi movies are smart enough to skip.

Prepare for battle! Ender’s Game is obsessed with training

Practice — we’re talking about practice. Allen Iverson would absolutely hate this movie, because about 75 percent of it is preoccupied with exactly that. Plucked from a typical childhood thanks to his potential as a future master strategist, young Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is recruited to the Battle School ranks of humanity’s International Fleet. It’s a train ‘em while-they’re-small military factory, conceived to breed entire generations of fighters to mount an Earthly defense against a hugely feared second planetary invasion from an alien species known as the Formics. The ant-like space freaks have attacked once before, and humanity’s survivors aren’t about to be caught unaware again… even if it means training a whole army of kid soldiers to ensure that Earth always remains at the ready.

Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) appears in concentration in Enders Game (2013).

The Formics don’t actually seem all that interested in staging an encore of their earlier assault, but Earth’s humans aren’t curious about that kind of detail. Right up until the end of the movie, nearly everything that poor Ender does is train for war. He trains in straightforward ways, kinda similar to how Neo and Morpheus square off in kung fu simulation in The Matrix. He trains even when he doesn’t know he’s training, too — mostly so viewers can voyeuristically appreciate the generational-talent savior material that runs through every strand of his Ricky Bobby-excellent DNA.

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Thanks to the machinations of Ender’s adult handlers (Ford as Col. Hyrum Graff; Viola Davis as Maj. Gwen Anderson), the movie gives us tons of opportunities to get that message loud and clear. Ford’s character is especially enamored with this kid's innate leadership gifts, observing from an admiring distance while Ender’s every innocuous move suggests that he indeed must be The One. Whether he’s getting picked on by peers, relaxing in his barracks with a video game, or botching his way through an early battle simulation, Ender’s constantly being watched and assessed — and there’s no real tension to any of the adverse situations the movie puts him through. Every time life hands him a challenge, whatever choice Ender makes only ratifies Graff’s confirmation bias that this kid simply can do no wrong… even when he’s literally doing it wrong.

Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) appears wearing a space uniform in a control room in Enders Game (2013).

Because the movie presumes that its audience is just as sold as Graf is on Ender’s overall greatness, there’s little opportunity for the larger stakes to mean very much. At some point, humans will put all their child-soldier training to use and actually take their do-or-die survival fight straight to the Formics in a preemptive strike — and Ender’s rapid advancement through the military ranks means he’ll probably be at the tip of the spear. But when the dramatic final battle comes, Ender’s Game attempts an emotional rug-pull that most viewers will see coming from a galaxy (or three) away, leaving our victorious child hero forever scarred with the trauma that comes with being remembered by history as a species-killer.

Ford’s gruff growling is a high point (isn’t it always?), and Davis makes the most of her limited screen time as an empathic military grown-up who dares to questions the system. Abigail Breslin is also great as Ender’s sister Valentine, though the movie mostly relegates her role to that of a helpless background cheerleader. Where Ender’s Game really shines is in its visuals: If the story doesn’t exactly bring this strange version of Earth’s high-tech future to life, it’s not the fault of the film’s killer special effects and expansive, color-rich world design. A late face-to-face meeting with a member of the alien Formic species is especially jaw-dropping… though we’ve gotta ask — how do so many alien-movie invaders manage to develop advanced civilizations capable of sustaining interplanetary space travel when they’re essentially giant, ugly bugs?

Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) peers at a brain scan on a transparent screened board in Enders Game (2013).

Some sci-fi movies underwhelm at the box office (think Blade Runner 2049) even as they linger in fans’ hearts as under-appreciated achievements that will always deserve to be seen. Ender’s Game, which cost a reported $110 million to make and managed to earn back only $125 million and change at the 2013 box office, likely won’t be making anyone’s slept-on movie list anytime soon… but for sheer insect-exterminating spectacle, it’s still the slickest slice of alien ant-blasting eye candy out there.

Ender’s Game is streaming on Peacock here!