Ender’s Game (2013)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Steve B. Enjoy!]
Ender’s Game is based on the award-winning novel by Orson Scott Card, released in 1985 after being adapted from his short story. As with many science fiction tales, the book’s epic scope and intricate storyline made it only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling about a movie adaptation.
The release of the film had its fair share of controversy. Many LGBT organizations and supporters of gay rights called for a boycott of the film in response to author Card’s hateful, anti-gay activism over the years, which included an op-ed calling for the overthrow of the U.S. government should it ever legalize gay marriage. Eventually, Lionsgate and writer-director Gavin Hood came forward to publicly denounce Card’s views, and Card himself released a “be tolerant of my intolerance” non-apology when it appeared the film’s box office would suffer as a result of his past remarks.
Ender’s Game went on to gross $61 million against a budget of $110 million, so it’s fair to call this one a dud, though this was probably due less to the boycott than to ads that made it look like a bland, generic mashup of Harry Potter and Hunger Games set in space (even though the novel predates both). Either way, the damage is mostly done, any possibility of sequels based on Card’s other novels is dead in the water, and now it’s safe to evaluate the film on its own terms.
The movie follows the development of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) from child prodigy to humanity’s last great hope in the war against the Formics, an insectoid race of space invaders who nearly annihilated Earth on their last visit to our shores (the aliens are no longer nicknamed “Buggers” as they are in the book, which is probably for the best given the author’s anti-gay views). And if not for the sacrificial heroics of one Mazer Rackham—who was apparently our last last great hope—the dastardly bugs would have succeeded, too.
Against a backdrop of paranoia in anticipation of a return visit from this devastating foe, plans (and no small amount of propaganda) are put forward for a preemptive strike on the Formics’ homeworld. Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff heads the search for brilliant tacticians to lead this effort, scouring sets of disconcertingly young military recruits for natural talent. In Ender, Graff finds the star pupil he’s been hoping for, and begins to fast-track him through the rigorous training process.
Leaning heavily on the battle games that factor into its title, Ender’s Game attempts to throw as much hardship at its young protagonist as it can squeeze into its 114-minute runtime. From the early pressure placed on Ender by pushy parents and sibling rivalry, to his subsequent testing and isolation by Graff aboard the orbital battle training station, the aim is to show us just how Ender becomes conditioned to tackle the unthinkable acts of war that will eventually be asked of him. At least, that appears to be the aim, though director Hood is pulled off message often enough to make one wonder if he really agreed with the author’s original intentions.
And herein lies the problem with Ender’s Game as a movie.
The original book features a rigorous character examination of Ender Wiggin at several different points along his emotional development. Forced into extreme isolation and hardship, that version of Ender had a much rougher ride than the one Hood portrays here. However much is thrown at Movie Ender, there are too few times when we really believe he’s on his own. Whether it’s the early support of his over-emotive sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), the quickly forged friendship with rookie training partner Bean (Aramis Knight), or the “gotta have a love interest” relationship with fellow recruit Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), there’s always someone there to offer a shoulder to cry on.
While there’s nothing wrong with this camaraderie per se, the result is often to detract from the duality of Ender’s character. He’s an emotionally innocent being forged into a ruthless war machine because of his precocious talent. The way Colonel Graff achieves this is by separating Ender from friendship and sympathy, but all too often there ends up being an outlet for him anyway. Which makes the supporting cast seem like little more than a hurriedly assembled, zero-gravity therapy group.
None of which is to suggest that the role of Ender isn’t well-played by Asa Butterfield. It is, and he does the best job he can to translate the pathos of his character’s predicament into an experience that we can sympathize with. His portrayal of Ender’s mercurial talent is balanced well with the growing pains of becoming comfortable in his own skin. Communicating that complexity is no small task in the limited time available, but some skillful delivery in the way he handles scenes like Ender’s first bully, or the difficult decisions he must make in the zero-gravity Battle Room when recruits face off in weightless war games, is convincing enough to make us care for our young lead character.
Perhaps the most effective example comes when Ender is forced to deal with Bonzo Madrid (Moisés Arias), the uncompromising leader of the elite Salamander battle group. This clash of wits plays out in both the Battle Room and the bunks, culminating in a tense standoff that results in Bonzo ending up in a coma. The guilt of what he has done, even though an accident, drives Ender on to his ultimate destiny, emphasizing both his respect for life and the ruthless streak that the powers that be have coaxed out of him throughout the movie.
Equally effective is a 3D fantasy game that Ender plays throughout the movie, which is really just a tool that school psychologist Major Anderson (Viola Davis) uses as a window into his psyche. Ender plays a mouse facing a giant, and makes a series of decisions that run uncomfortably close to those he’ll soon face in combat. It’s a neat counterpoint and one that gets into his character’s head as well as anything else in the movie.
Without ruining the film’s grand finale, Ender’s resolve is brutally tested and he passes, but at great cost to the side of his character that we’ve been rooting for. On the plus side, the visually spectacular climax certainly delivers on the time invested in watching him reach that point. Unfortunately, Ender is the only one who ever becomes fleshed out in three-dimensional form, with the rest of the cast seemingly there only to justify his bloody-yet-brilliant existence. It’s like having a high performance sports car and only being able to race it against family minivans.
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. After all, Moisés Arias turns in a solid performance as Bonzo, and Ben Kingsley swoops in unexpectedly towards the end for a brief but commanding cameo as a military man covered in Maori face tattoos. And yet, these notable personalities are offset by the depressingly predictable Petra, and an uncharacteristically flat Harrison Ford as Graff, who should really be the calculating kingpin of Ender’s path to destruction. All in all, there are too many characters who add too little to make this a fully-rounded film.
Even with those flaws, Ender’s Game is a perfectly enjoyable sci-fi romp that will while away a couple of your entertainment hours without regret. As a standalone, popcorn-munching piece it holds up well, but fans of the book are likely to feel let down by the gaps in Ender’s career development and the largely shallow supporting performances.
For the purists, there’s always the book to reread, though the movie raises enough intriguing questions about leadership and the cost of war to make it worthwhile on its own. And of course, another huge positive in the movie’s favor is that, unlike the book, its creators have made sincere attempts to distance themselves from backwards, bigoted lines of thought.