Ender’s Game (2013)
“This is not a game”
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld
Synopsis: Young Ender Wiggin is recruited by the International Military to lead the fight against the Formics, a genocidal alien race which nearly annihilated the human race in a previous invasion.
I wonder if the producers realised the hornets’ nest into which they were plunging their corporate hand when they decided to adapt Orson Scott Card’s popular 1980s SF novel Ender’s Game into a movie. Back in the 1990s, Card had publicly objected to same-sex marriages, an opinion which inevitably inflamed gay rights protestors, who clearly have long and unforgiving memories. Upon learning of plans to make a movie based upon the writings of a vocal non-believer in their cause, the protestors called for a boycott of the movie, which may or may not have had an influence on Ender’s Game’s poor box office performance. Personally, I’m not really interested enough in the sex lives of strangers to care whether they want to have sex with a member of the same gender, a different gender or a different species altogether, but I get pretty ticked off when they begin trying to influence what I will or will not be able to see at the cinema…
For that reason alone, I hoped that I’d be able to heap mountains of praise upon Gavin Hood’s adaptation. But sadly, Ender’s Game too often comes across as a lightweight SF hybrid of Harry Potter, The Dirty Dozen and Starship Troopers to generate any real identity of its own. To be fair, it delivers a killer twist (to those, like me, who are unfamiliar with Card’s novel) in its final act that throws an entirely new light on all that has happened before, and Ender’s Game is to be commended for addressing moral issues from which most high concept blockbuster movies make a point of avoiding, but by then it feels too much like we’re emerging into bright light after a long journey in a dark tunnel.
The very first scene, in which we see space craft engaging in a dog fight in the orange skies above earth wrought by worryingly ordinary CGI, gives rise to a thread of unease, but let’s give Ender’s Game the benefit of the doubt and assume the images are supposed to look a little cheesy because they were supposed to have been shot fifty years before the events in the movie. What we’re seeing is a fight to the death between we humans and an army of Formicas, ant-like aliens attempting to invade the Earth. Thanks to the bravery and skill of the legendary Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley — Schindler’s List) the human race prevails (hurrah!), but has since lived in fear of a second attempt by the Formicas. So concerned, in fact, is the Government that it has initiated a program of identifying the population’s smartest children, believing that a childhood dominated by video games has instilled in them superior reflexes and the ability to make intuitive decisions instantly.
One of these children is Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), a social outcast because of his smarts, whose method of ensuring a bully never bothers him catches the eye of military commander Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford — Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Exactly why he considers Ender’s tactics — he hits the other kid long and hard enough so that he can’t get up, and won’t consider picking on him again — to be out of the ordinary is something of a mystery. He’s clearly never spent time in a school playground. Anyway, it just so happens he’s right about Ender. The boy possesses unique analytical and tactical qualities as well as yet untapped leadership skills which make him a prime candidate to be the new Mazer Rackham. So it is that Ender finds himself fast-tracked through Command School, overcoming the malicious attentions of a rival potential commando called Bonzo (a name which might go some way to explaining his anger management issues). Considering the rigorous psychological profiling the candidates must go through just to make it to commando school, you have to wonder just how Bonzo (Moises Arias) slipped through the net — but, of course, no boot camp movie would be complete without the hero overcoming a little bullying along the way.
This psychological profiling is conducted by the motherly Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis — The Help, Prisoners) whose concerns about the effect this fast-tracking is having on Ender brings her into conflict with Graff. But what she doesn’t realise is that the Formicans are once more building up their fleet and a possible second invasion attempt could be only weeks away.
It’s to Ender’s Game’s credit that it at least takes the time to develop Ender’s character, making him a confused and complex hero rather than just a cardboard cut-out superhero. But, unfortunately, Ender is the only one to receive this treatment from writer and director Gavin Hood. The other kids who make up his team of elite misfits are barely more than character sketches who bear no greater psychological burden from the monumental task for which they’re being trained than a bunch of kids sat around a PS4. Harrison Ford settles comfortably into grumpy old man mode as the ageing General who believes in winning at all costs, but even his character has no definition beyond the objective of defeating the Formicans.
Ender’s Game has the look and feel of a young adult movie about it, like a young teenage boy’s answer to The Hunger Games, but like that movie, it has a lot more depth than you’d expect which, while lifting it out of the domain of teen wish fulfilment, just fails to give it the kind of gravitas for which it appears to have been striving.