Critical Mass: Is 'Ender's Game' the next big YA franchise? Or is it 'The Golden Compass'?

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Image Credit: Richard Foreman

Nearly 30 years after Orson Scott Card published the best-selling Ender’s Game, the Hugo-Award winning science-fiction novel receives the full Hollywood treatment from the studio behind The Hurt Locker and Twilight. Those two films are perhaps relevant, because Ender’s Game tells the story of young teens, led by Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield, who are tasked with the very-adult responsibility of going to war to defend mankind.

In the future, Earth barely survived an alien invasion, and 50 years later, the planet’s military commanders, led by Harrison Ford, are expecting another attack any day. To prepare, they’ve recruited child-soldiers whose minds are especially agile and suited for a new brand of warfare.

Written and directed by Gavin Hood (Wolverine), and starring a coterie of Oscar-nominated actors — Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Hailee Steinfeld — Ender’s Game has been stifled by threats of boycott from those offended by Card’s anti-gay politics. The film, however, stands on its own, and now that it’s in theaters, perhaps it can finally be allowed to speak for itself. EW’s critic Chris Nashawaty predicts that Ender’s Game is one of those “beloved novels … that wound up getting sapped of their original spark and power on the way to the big screen,” hinting that its fate will ultimately be more The Golden Compass than Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

But the film has its defenders, too. Click below to see what the nation’s critics think before heading to the theater.

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly) ▼
“It’s a harmless, slightly clunky story in which the undercooked plot and unremarkable performances fail to match the visual ambition. The revelations in the film’s downbeat but satisfying final act hint at the deeper ambitions and wrinkles that were ironed out of the novel on its journey to the multiplex. But by the time the movie finally manages to get interesting, audiences may be too numb and their retinas too fried to win back.”

Michael O’Sullivan (Washington Post) ▲
“The film doesn’t need added suspense, bigger action or a better dramatic twist; it’s got all of those, in more than serviceable amounts. But it benefits greatly, at least for those who care about such things, by actually being about something — the morality of war and its methods — in a way that most movies of this type are not.”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times)
Ender’s Game is a bit of a gloomy mess at times, and there were moments when it almost imploded under the weight of its own self-importance. But director Gavin Hood and a first-rate cast … deliver a rousing, challenging adventure that should satisfy most young fans of the book while keeping the adults engrossed as well.”

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) ▲
Ender’s Game gains a lot from the ability of its story to touch a nerve. A film for young people to which adults can eavesdrop if they are so inclined, it’s not any more sophisticated than it needs to be.”

Marc Bernardin (Hollywood Reporter)
Ender’s Game is a film about empathy and the power that resides in empathy. The reason Ender succeeds is because he understands what makes his opponents tick on the battlefield, in the locker rooms and in the classrooms. Oddly, the film doesn’t seem to have much empathy for its hero.”

Manohla Dargis (New York Times)
“Mr. Butterfield is one of those young performers whose seriousness feels as if it sprang from deep within. And while he’s an appealing presence, little Ender can’t help feeling like a pint-size psycho.”

Liam Lacey (Toronto Globe and Mail)
“The casting of Ford draws inevitable comparisons to Star Wars, another movie about a specially chosen space fighter, but Ender’s Game has neither the humour nor naiveté of George Lucas’s boy-hero pop-culture phenomenon, arguably to its detriment.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)
“So much youthful energy onscreen makes Ford seem tired and weary by comparison. Still, it’s a treat to discover Han Solo all buttoned up and back to do more space battle — not that anyone here is quite as lively or memorable as the characters B-movie fans discovered in Star Wars three dozen years ago.”

Peter Keough (Boston Globe) ▼
“With so much to work with, it is disappointing that Gavin Hood’s adaptation is not much more than the world’s coolest video game. … Acted without affect in settings that are as devoid of humanity as the space station in 2001, this game plays out with cold precision but little team spirit.”

Scott Bowles (USA Today)
“Certainly, no outer space film wanted to be the first to follow Gravity, the picture that remains in theaters and has become such a public sensation that SNL is doing skits about it. While the zero-gravity scenes are accomplished in Ender’s, they still leave the movie looking like an echo to the sci-fi shot heard round Hollywood.”

Stephen Whitty (Newark Star-Ledger) ▼
“Although the movie’s vision of drone attacks and pre-emptive war couldn’t be more topical, too much of the film is taken up with zero-gravity laser tag and point-and-click computer warfare — genocide reduced to a videogame. Card once thought his book was unfilmable. Perhaps he’s right.”

Ender’s Game
Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 51
Rotten Tomatoes: 63 percent

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