Lots of science fiction movies deal with the build-up and impact of an alien invasion, but relatively few deal with how societies react and rebuild in the aftermath. Ender’s Game – based on the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card – is rather different. Taking place 50 years after a battle with an insect-like race called the Formics, Ender’s Game sees Earth’s victorious survivors battle-hardened and willing to do just about anything to prevent an incursion happening again.
One of the terran military’s tactics against the Formics involves the training of adolescent troops to fight on our planet’s behalf – their youthful minds being more adept at controlling complex space-faring battleships. One such trainee is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a slight yet forceful young lad who hopes to gain the approval of his father by becoming a military success.
Under the watchful eye of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender’s coaxed through boot camp, beginning with zero-G military exercises on an orbiting space station before getting to the task at hand: finding a way to defeat the Formics.
In what could be described as a struggle to sell what is a fairly dark fable about war and empathy, Ender’s Game has been pitched as a “Harry Potter meets Star Wars” PG-13 bit of fantasy fun (this is, in fact, the line seen on the film’s television advertising in the UK). But really, Ender’s Game is more like Starship Troopers crossed with Full Metal Jacket; for a story with a potentially young audience, it delves quite deeply into the way Ender’s military training accentuates his more aggressive tendencies. Throughout, Graff uses the boy’s anger and desire to beat his opponents at any cost; by turning war into a game, Graff plans to turn Ender into a miniature Julius Caesar.
“The purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars,” is the colonel’s means of justifying his pre-emptive attack on the Formics and the use of kids to fight his battles. I’d hesitate to say that either the source novel or the film are anti-war, but both appear to explore the blurry moral lines involved in conflict, and how military training positively encourages soldiers to bury their human emotions. How very young audiences will take to these themes is anyone’s guess, but there’s no denying that they make Ender’s Game something more than just a PG-13 special effects fest.
Younger viewers may also grow fidgety through Ender’s lengthy training process, which largely involves a kind of laser-tag death match in zero gravity. Rather than bringing pace and aggression to these battles, writer and director Gavin Hood instead presents them as a graceful dervish of floating limbs and criss-crossing laser bolts, and it has to be said that, once you’ve seen one of these skirmishes, you’ve really seen them all.
There are problems, too, with Hood’s adapted screenplay, especially in the first half. Some lines of dialogue either land with an ungainly thud (“My father trained horses, and I know a thoroughbred when I see one”), or come across as dry exposition – a side-effect, perhaps, of attempting to compress a novel with a complex back story into a relatively brief (110-or-so minute) movie.
Ender’s presented as an oddly cold, unblinking protagonist, and although his military training would explain why he’s such a serious young chap, it’s a pity that the movie’s opening couldn’t give us more of an insight into his everyday personality outside boot camp. The movie is, after all, about the transformation of a boy into a battle-ready commander, and had the first act given us more of a sense that, deep down, Ender was really just another Pokemon-loving kid (kids still like Pokemon, don’t they?), the rest of the film could have been carried more dramatic weight.
Such seriousness aside, Asa Butterfield carries the movie well, and in the more intense second half, he acquits himself well both physically and dramatically. And make no mistake, this is Butterfield’s movie. Harrison Ford may be a famous name beneath the title, but he has little to do other than look slightly tired and pensive, and talk to his underlings about Ender’s promise as a military leader. Hailee Steinfeld is likeable as Petra, one of Ender’s fellow trainees, but she’s given relatively little to do other than press buttons.
It’s been a strong year for visually striking science fiction films, with Joseph Kosinski’s devastated future Earth in Oblivion, Neill Blomkamp’s Los Angeles favelas in Elysium, and Alfonso Cuaron’s breathtaking orbiting vistas in Gravity. Ender’s Game can’t compare to those in terms of world-building or sheer jaw-dropping imagination, but its production design is shiny and convincing, and the Formic ships are engagingly spiky, vicious-looking things.
Hood doesn’t bring very much in the way of sweaty-palmed tension to his combat scenes, but he does succeed in bringing some of the weightier elements of Card’s book to the big screen. Unflinchingly portraying Ender as a troubled and potentially violent young man, and those in command of him heartlessly manipulative, it’s these aspects of the story – rather than the explosions and trainee laser battles – that ultimately make it stick in the mind.
Ender’s Game is out on the 25th October in UK cinemas.
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