“It’s not about if we win, but how we win.”
We’ve always looked to children as our saviors. From our mistakes, from our retribution and retaliations, from our ups and downs, we aspire to raise the forthcoming generations as a collective assurance effort. We want them to be better than us, to have lives that are more fulfilling than ours. Their pride and achievements become reflected in ourselves because we know it was us, the generation previous, that provided them with such opportunities. In Ender’s Game, based on the beloved young adult novel by Orson Scott Card, children are more than just our saviors; they’re our last hope.
Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a brilliant strategist, using his militarized intellect and logic to counterbalance his wiry body type. He looks no older than a middle school student, but from a brain analysis one would think he possessed the rank of Admiral. He’s the primary person of interest for Commander Hyman Graff (Harrison Ford), who believes that Ender possesses the ability to lead the human race into battle against the Formican race, a bug-like alien species that attacked Earth half a decade ago with intentions of world domination. While the humans survived that initial attack, the Formicans are planning to return and Graff insists on entering war in order to prevent all future wars. While Ender understands that he is being groomed for a pressured position, he does prove to be a child of incredibly gifted intelligence from the get go – he could give Professor Charles Xavier a psychological run for his money, telepathy notwithstanding. As Ender progresses through game after game, each designed to depict real life obstacles, he nears a ‘Graduation Battle’ that will determine whether he is truly our last hope or just another youth set to be destroyed by Graff’s misplaced faith.
While the YA adaptation craze is continuing like clockwork – a new Hunger Games is mere weeks away – Ender’s Game makes a strong effort to mark its own place and it does a pretty great job. Granted, the source material is nearly thirty years old, but writer/director Gavin Hood spearheads his adaptation with clear intentions. Unlike Gary Ross, who started the initial Hunger Games film with a raw, impressionistic approach only to cower in the third act with his disappointingly muted portrayal of the violent ‘games,’ Hood is thoroughly grounded, maintaining a straightforward progression and unafraid to keep some of the source material’s darkness. Most of the sequenced violence is tamed – the majority happens within simulated gameplay – but there remains shocking moments showing Hood’s clear understanding of when to fluff the screen and when to keep everything level. A deft examination of brain vs. brawn revolves around Ender, whose military prowess fuels his defensive spurts of violence. The kid is bullied because of his size, even though the intentions of said bullies burgeon from jealousy; Ender manages to defeat his attackers routinely but not without bringing them to a jarring halt. “I make sure they can never hurt me again,” says Ender, nearly sociopathically. Hood treats these scenes with careful senses; they are as affecting on screen as they surely sounded in Card’s prose. In all honesty, some of the child-on-child violence and injury is harrowing.
Still, for all the respect I have toward Hood’s directorial work, he’s a filmmaker who still can’t grasp the concept of pacing. The Oscar winner (Tsotsi) made his big budget debut with the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a self-destructive film that, in hindsight, seems to have intended on scraping from the bottom of the barrel and patching together a prequel tale for Hugh Jackman’s famous clawed mutant. With all of that film’s problems, Hood is lucky to have climbed out unscathed, but his effort to condense his stories into economic runtimes is risky for his own creative integrity. Ender’s Game flies by, running at such a brisk pace that its impact is almost halved come the credits. Many of its complex ideas aren’t given enough time to blossom, while certain characters reach totally marginalized levels – Abigail Breslin practically waves at the audience and then disappears. Hood rarely lets the film simmer, therefore the viewing experience never feels wholly fulfilled, especially when a third act reveal – which surely worked better in the book – retroactively sacrifices the experience of an absorbing climax. Most viewers will probably catch on to the twist minutes before it occurs but even that didn’t remedy my observation. Nonetheless, Hood has bounced back from that 2008 Marvel disaster, utilizing great special effects work and crafting rounded screen versions of Card’s original characters.
Writing wise, Hood appeals to commercialism but that isn’t as hindering as it sounds. The dialogue is so on-the-nose that in IMAX I could almost feel it tickling my face and ‘subtle’ is probably the last word I’d use to describe its thematic practices, but Hood very much is making a young adult movie for young adult audiences. Middle schoolers and freshmen in high school will be all over the feature and parents will applaud the work, hence all of Game’s intents and purposes are met. Being in my early 20s, I would kill to see this story written with more sophistication, but by curbing my selfishness I can see the blockbuster status hidden underneath all of the screenplay’s overtness.
Ender’s Game is a big fall surprise for me. Having missed out on the book in my youth, my expectations ranged from low to nonexistent. The trailers sparked no interest and I sadly was so overscheduled with other work that the paperback copy I’ve kept on my desk for months never turned to pages past Card’s introductory retrospective. Who’s to say how much that influenced my opinion here, but it surely played a part even if it can’t yet be quantified. I thought about commenting on the propagandist nature of the film and how it conceives a sense of ‘greater good combat instigation,’ like a diet version of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will from the 1940s, but that’s just me overanalyzing. Ender’s Game has a lot to do already in trying to distance itself from Orson Scott Card and all of his hate-infused comments toward race and sexual orientation, the last thing Hood is trying to do is make some kind of comment on militarization and morally justified warfare. Ender’s Game is big screen, autumn entertainment that should engage audiences with its creativity and thoughtful ideas, no matter how overly palpable they are.
And while Asa Butterfield can’t act worth a lick, you can be sure that this die hard Star Wars fan was always smiling – mostly internally, but sometimes externally – at the wink-wink casting of Harrison Ford. Glad to see the cinematic legend still putting in great work.
Review by Mike Murphy