Directed by Gavin Hood
Written by Gavin Hood based on the book by Orson Scott Card
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abagail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Khylin Rhambo
I would imagine that one of the biggest questions going into the long-gestating, finally arrived movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s seminal 1985 science fiction novel would be how faithful a translation it is. Unfortunately you’ll have to go elsewhere for that answer as this Renegade Reviewer has never read Ender’s Game. However, based on the film, it is a situation I will be rectifying immediately.
In the future, Earth has already fought and almost lost a battle with an invading species of bug-like aliens, Formics, who were attempting to set up a colony on our home planet. While watching the Formic homeland from afar, the International Military prepares for an assumed followup invasion by seeking out children to participate in ever-increasingly difficulty training and strategic simulations. Those that can’t hack it wash out and are sent back home; those that rise above eventually go from being deemed “Launchies” to Battle and Command School. The best of these best will be named Commander, and Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) is convinced that Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the child that can lead the International Military into battle and successfully eradicate the Formic threat, once and for all.
Ender’s Game is a well-acted, fascinating film that is brewing with ideas about youth and war that people much more qualified than me have probably already commented upon ad nauseam. Why are children (pre-teen to teens) chosen to participate in grueling battle simulations? To better prepare them become adults capable of making split second strategic combat decisions? If only it were that simply. And what of the stories of Iraq or Afghanistan, where children volunteer or are used as incendiary explosive devices because the opposition thinks that their vision of victory is the only thing that matters? Hard to understand, right? Look and listen at Ford’s Colonel Graff’s idealism here and tell me if it’s any different. The fact that Ender’s Game is science fiction makes no difference. In the real world, humans of different cultural and religious backgrounds are just as alien to others who don’t understand their customs or struggles.
Given all this, Ender’s Game is made even more interesting via the training squad melting pots seen in Battle School. Boys and girls, white and black and brown, all work together in squads competing to become the best. It is great to see such gifted child actors work with each other, effectively conveying the same with their characters. But once again the question of whether they’d be able to sustain such relationships in peacetime rises to my mind’s surface. Does war create a necessary cultural union here that would otherwise be unrealized?
Not that it’s all flowers and sunshine. Ender is a skinny, seemingly weak kid, but his tactical brain is unrivaled and he learns early on that the only way to stop bullying to to prevent future occurrences via forceful means. We see Ender struggle with this throughout the film; the idea of force versus communication, and especially of loving one’s enemy, are powerful and worthy of the main character’s consideration. Knowing this, Ender is still left to wonder if anyone will entertain an audience on these matters, and by the end of his journey through Command School must seek his own.
Keep in mind that all of this doesn’t even touch on the idea of war games or simulations, which have always been used to teach combat strategy. Things are getting a little more real in that regard given the advances in drone technology, and training technology in general. Now a pilot can sit in a simulator much like a kid can sit in his living room with an Xbox controller and bomb a structure half a world away. How much longer before game and reality are no longer delineated?
So, after all this somewhat-philosophical mumbo-jumbo, you may be asking, “Hey Rick, how was, like, you know, the movie itself?” Hopefully the fact that I’ve considered everything mentioned so far gives a good indication that I think Ender’s Game is a flick worth seeing. It’s stuck with me for the past 24 hours or so as I’ve considered the messages both blatant and hinted at in its moving images. All of the actors are stellar here, from top-billed Asa Butterfield as Ender and Harrison Ford as his commander/surrogate father Colonel Graff to the many actors who make up various Battle School standouts, from Hailee Stenfeld’s Petra of Salamander Squadron who trains with Ender in Free Time to Moises Arias as Bonzo, leader of the Salamander Squadron who’s just about as slimy as an amphibian. Ben Kingsley is Ben Kingsley, doing the best with what he’s given, but I felt his character of Mazer Rackham lacked some of the intended gravitas as the pilot who saved Earth by figuring out how to defeat the first Formic invasion. Viola Davis is also excellent, partly because she always is, partly because she plays off of Harrison Ford’s Graff and his ‘win at all costs’ persona extremely well; while Davis’s Major Anderson knows that there’s a war to win, she also understands that the victors also suffer losses.
The special effects are also suitably competent. I’ve seen some reports of CGI and/or practical effects, particularly the zero gravity scenes, being a bit hokey, but I detected nothing particularly egregious and felt as though I was floating around alongside the Battle School recruits. Some of the later action sequences were CGI-laden but given the nature of interstellar combat, this is to be expected.
Ender’s Game is a bit unlike any other science fiction I’ve seen on the big screen, and such occurrences are always welcome. Perhaps that’s why people always claimed the source material was not adaptable. In this Renegade’s opinion, with little to compare it to (only for now; as I’ve said, I will be picking up this book soon), Gavin Hood and company did a great job of bringing a unique tale to the big screen. You should go see it, even if you’re just looking for a solid sci-fi action flick. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be thinking about more than xenomorphs and special effects.