Ender’s Game has eye-popping visuals and compelling story elements that can compete with any seen in the glut of science fiction films that hit theaters this year. But what makes it stand apart from sci-fi fare such as Oblivion, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Pacific Rim is its commitment to delivering a message, or at least adding to the conversation, about the ever-evolving methods and ethics of waging war in the name of preserving peace and security.
Asa Butterfield (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, Hugo) plays Ender Wiggin, the youngest of three children in the Wiggin family and the most recent to be chosen as a potential candidate for “Battle School”, the prestigious and highly competitive program that prepares children with the most capable tactical minds to someday command and control humanity’s space fleets and defenses against threats from outer space. The International Fleet that defends Earth realized after the first cataclysmic alien invasion by an insect-like race called the Formics that younger minds could assimilate and process large amounts of information more efficiently that adult minds. Thus, to prepare for the future invasion they knew was coming, the Fleet created the Battle School program so that Earth could be ready to defend itself and/or take the war to the Formics and end their threat.
Ender’s two older siblings, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), each were selected out of the Battle School program because of their dominant personality traits — Valentine was too sympathetic, Peter too prone to violence. Ender is seen by the Battle School’s primary recruiters, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and, more reluctantly, Major Anderson (Viola Davis) as potentially having a balance of the two traits, in addition to a keen analytical and strategic mind.
Once recruited and sent off to Battle School, headquartered in a stupendous space station orbiting the earth, Ender must establish himself, first among his peers, and later among older, more experienced cadets, as a capable strategist and leader through rigorous team war games. His efforts are complicated by Graff himself, who works both visibly and behind the scenes to socially isolate Ender and thus harden him for the burdens and loneliness of command. It’s all in the hope that somehow the young man can fulfill his potential and follow in the footsteps of the legendary Battle Commander who defeated the Formics decades before, Mazer Rackham, and defeat the enemy once and for all.
As a film unto itself, Ender’s Game is extremely engrossing, thrilling, and thought-provoking. Butterfield, an actor in British stage, TV and film productions since the age of 7, delivers what should be a breakout performance as the gifted and deeply-conflicted Ender, who wishes to prove himself, to live up to the legacy of Mazer Rackham and the expectations placed upon him, and also to somehow retain his soul in the face of becoming an arbiter of death and destruction. Playing opposite Butterfield, Harrison Ford makes good use of his history of playing heroes and protagonists in his portrayal of Graff. Audiences used to seeing his rugged good looks and lopsided smile will instinctively want to like him, especially at the outset when he’s Ender’s most vocal advocate for Battle School candidacy, and thus should be taken off-guard as the relationship he and Ender takes the turn that it does throughout the film. In other words, as much as we might want him to be, Graff is not just an older, wrinklier Han Solo. He’s something far more complex, and possibly more dangerous, and Ford pulls it off brilliantly.
Visually, the film never fails to impress, and that’s saying something considering it’s been less than a month since Gravity, another film featuring extensive CGI and depictions of action taking place in space and in zero-G. The sequences in the Battle Room where Ender’s tactical brilliance and style of command come to the fore are among the most entertaining set pieces in the film, arguably more engaging than the later massive CGI sequences showing Ender commanding fleets of ships against the Formics because of the presence of real actors. The film’s inspired production design, in particular its costume design, is likely to bring about lots of merchandise and fan-created cosplay costumes, as everything from uniforms to mission patches are a feast for the eyes.
All that said, it cannot be ignored that this film is an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 bestselling novel, and as such is sure to be a lightning rod for controversy, both among Card’s ardent fans and supporters and his detractors. Hood’s screenplay and his cinematic vision retain a number of the most recognizable elements from the book — the characters, obviously; the nature of Battle and Command School, Ender’s friendships and rivalries while at school, his deep emotional connection with his sister Valentine and his complicated mentor/father figure relationship with Graff, to name a few.
But in addition to the necessary simplification of characters and story beats that always happens when novels get adapted for the screen, other plot elements seem to differ radically from Card’s telling of the story, as does the overall tone and the message audiences may take away from the film once the credits roll. It’s ironic that Card’s novel is still in use today as recommended reading at certain levels of the U.S. Armed Forces for its treatment of military methodology and its value for leadership training, because this film version calls into serious question the validity and justification for certain military strategies, in particular the justification for preemptive conflict and combat followed to the last full measure as a means of preventing future engagements. While the novel was criticized by some at the time of its release for its arguable validation of violence as means to peace, the film certainly should not receive such criticism, as a criticism of that very strategy is built into its plot and message.
To that end, just like any other film adaptation of a beloved story, it may just be the folks who haven’t read the novel that enjoy Ender’s Game the most, as they will certainly walk into the film with fewer expectations than those even casually familiar with Card’s work, and thus are less likely to be taken aback or scandalized by unwelcome changes. If anything, they may be put off by how heavy-handed the delivery of Hood’s themes might feel by the film’s end.
But should you avoid the film if you have read the book? Absolutely not. It’s finely-crafted and highly enjoyable science fiction entertainment, so if you’re a fan of the genre, you can at least enjoy it as a great representative piece of the genre. At worst, you might find yourself wanting to read the book again to fully recognize all the changes, and if you’re a fan of the book, how could that possibly be a bad thing?
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, and Abigail Breslin. Directed by Gavin Hood.
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.