This film version of “Ender’s Game” really should not have worked.
For one, it’s a very cerebral story. Based on a science fiction novel by celebrated author Orson Scott Card, it takes place in a very advanced future where the young minds of promising boys and girls are used for the purposes of war strategy. After a race of aliens (who were described to resemble and act like ants) called the Formics attempted to invade Earth, the next fifty years were spent trying to stay one step ahead of these would-be conquerors with the sole purpose being to try to find the next leader of the Earth’s starfleet.
This is a tough concept to swallow — developing children’s minds into weapons of war, which is why the author himself has referred to his book as “unfilmable.” The main reason for this is because most of the novel takes place between the ears of our protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggins, as he looks at the theories behind wartime strategy as being like a “game,” hence the title. The powers that be who try to turn these kids into battle-hardened thinkers also try to turn the proceedings into a game-like atmosphere.
They even create a zero-gravity game that the kids play, which is a cross between Capture the Flag, Quidditch (although, this book was written in 1985, way before J.K. Rowling brought Harry Potter into the world) and paintball. A great deal of time in the film is spent on these kids playing and pining about this particular activity, by the way, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of levity.
The way the filmmakers tackle the landscape of Ender and his thoughts, as well as portraying a group of teenagers preparing to fight a war, is by transforming Ender’s bouts of critical thinking into a video game involving a giant, a mouse and two goblets filled with bubbling poison. It’s sort of the gaming version of that scene in “The Princess Bride“ where short, fat Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) challenges Wesley (Cary Elwes) to a game of wits. Remember that scene? If not, here’s a hint — “Inconceivable!!” Anyway, this allows for the viewer to see what’s going on in Ender’s head and how he formulates his strategy, without resorting to cheap camera tricks that indicate internal monologues. It’s quite a clever way to deal with this “unfilmable” problem.
As for the “kids fighting a war” angle… well… there’s nothing that can really be done about
this. It’s part of the book and it faithfully stays part of the film. There’s no avoiding the fact that the adults in this movie look like exploitative jerks — and that’s that. There’s no sugarcoating it or getting around it, these kids are being straight-up used by the system. They’re so competitive that they’ve lost their sense of innocence and give up their childhood to be part of a war they didn’t start… and they do so with a great deal of exuberance.
One particular scene shows war hero Mazer Rackham flying a fighter plane into a Formic battleship in a Kamikaze-style act of heroism and self-sacrifice. The kids cheer as they watch a recording of these events from the first war in a classroom setting. To them it’s like watching Ryan Howard (not the “little man” from The Office) hit a home run (remember when he used to do that?) or watching their favorite team win a game. In other words, it’s the ultimate rush. They want to do that for their planet. It’s rather heartbreaking and it says a lot about what is lost and exploited during war time — especially regarding young, moldable minds.
Thematically-speaking, “Ender’s Game” might be too deep for the average moviegoer. Sure, they put in some fantastic scenes involving that zero-g game I previously explained, but most of it is about the psychological toll that being involved within the bowels of a war takes upon one’s soul. In the beginning of the film, Ender (played brilliantly by young English actor Asa Butterfield, from “Hugo”) is just another kid trapped in the system. Early on, he’s bullied at school and because he shows strategic aptitude by fighting back and stomping on the bully so he “stays down,” General Hyram Graff (Harrison Ford) shows interest in him to be promoted to “Battle School.”
Ender comes from a family with THREE children, which is not the norm in future times. Apparently, you have to get the government’s permission to have more than two kids. Ender’s jealous brother Peter has already been passed over for Battle School due to his sociopathic tendencies, while his sister Valentine, with whom he’s particularly close to, hasn’t been chosen due to her tendencies towards compassion for others. It seems that Graff and his psychologist colleague Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) have taken a shine to ender and invite him to travel to a space station tethered above Earth.
It is here that Ender is molded into the strategist that Graff wants him to be. Everything that is done to Ender and everything Ender does in return is part of a “game” that both parties play in order to manipulate the other. Thematically, it’s a little bit like the 1995 urban drama
“Fresh,” in which a young boy (played by a young Sean Nelson) uses his expertise in the game of chess to formulate a plan that makes all of his enemies disappear. In fact, if “Fresh” and Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 cult classic “Starship Troopers” (another adaptation from another apparently unfilmable sci-fi novel) had a cinematic baby, it would turn out to be “Ender’s Game.”
As far as the production value goes, “Ender’s Game” is a wonder to behold. The special effects are literally out-of-this-world and are subtle enough that they don’t repeat the common sci-fi mistake of being too reliant on CGI to tell the tale. This especially works in the zero-g game sequences, which combines green screen and practical stunt work seamlessly to form ambitious segments that the filmmakers behind the Quidditch sequences from the “Harry Potter” films wishes they could have achieved.
Director-writer Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Tsotsi”) does a remarkable job of keeping the proceedings grounded in reality and not letting the fantastical elements of an outer space war with an alien species mask the actual point of the story — that aforementioned loss of innocence I spoke of earlier. Hood makes it extremely easy to get lost in the simple story of a child who’s groomed for greatness by situations that are beyond his control, but below the surface he’s just not ready to lead an army into battle… quite literally in this case.
Butterfield is an immense talent and an eye should really be kept on this kid, as far as possible future Oscar nominations go (maybe not for “Ender’s Game” per se, but in a future role), while we know about the talent levels of the rest of the cast. Oscar nominee Hailee
Steinfeld plays Petra, Ender’s best friend at Battle School and a possible love interest (they hold hands), while fellow young Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin plays his sister Valentine. Actually, a lot of the stars of this film have garnered Oscar nods in the past — Ford, Davis and also Ben Kingsley, who makes an appearance late in the film as a mentor to Ender, who’s covered in Maori facial tattoos and may or may not be a very important war hero. Disney Channel stalwart Moises Arias also makes an appearance as the mite-sized bully Bonzo and continues his rise towards the top of my personal “Actors to Watch For” list, which he started to climb after his role in my favorite film of this past season, “The Kings of Summer.”
With all of these masterfully-handled, yet tough-to-swallow themes, awe-inspiring special effect, and actors at the top of their craft, you’d think that “Ender’s Game” has the makings of a memorable movie experience… maybe even a good film. Actually, you’d be right. That is, except for one thing — the ending of the movie. I’m kind of torn. I was all set to sing the praises of Ender and his gamesmanship… until that terrible ending. I know, I know. That’s how the book ends too, apparently. However, that’s no excuse. That just makes it a book with an awful, out-of-place ending as well. Obviously, I won’t tell you HOW it ends. I’ll just give you these words — I wish the movie commenced about five or ten minutes earlier. Then I’d be carrying that Hallelujah tune as we speak.
Maybe, you can walk out a few minutes early and you’ll have survived that uninspiring and way-too-convenient wrap-up. It just ties the story up in a pretty little bow… and I’m pretty sure that shouldn’t be part of anyone’s “game.”