Ender’s Game misses being that great thing: Sci-fi for grownups

Orson Scott Card‘s 1985 novel Ender’s Game has acquired a large and devoted following. I’m not an acolyte or even a reader of Card’s popular books, so I approached the eagerly awaited movie version of the first novel in the series with an high hopes and open mind.

What I found in Ender’s Game is a juvenile helping of sci-fi that wrestles with some big, topical issues, but would require ample applications of intellectual Clearasil® before it’s ready to claim an unblemished place in the sci-fi big leagues.

Having said that, I certainly wouldn’t dissuade fans of the books from seeing a movie that has been assembled by director Gavin Hood in ways that attempt to maximize action, much of it involving zero-gravity training exercises that pit teams of youthful combatants against one another.

If there’s genius in the concept, it’s probably in how the movie acknowledges that game-savvy kids are more easily adaptable to modern warfare than are adults. In the future, killer instincts will be largely put to service not behind handheld firearms but hovering above computer keyboards.

Hood’s kid-centered, tech-laden drama follows 10-year-old Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) through various stages of training in facilities that orbit the Earth. Hood, who also wrote the screenplay, divides the movie roughly into thirds.

In the first (and skimpiest) section we meet Ender and his family, a sister (Abigail Breslin) and an older bother Peter (Jimmy ‘Jax’ Pinchak). The arrogant Peter quickly vanishes from the story, but Breslin’s Valentine crops up intermittently, mostly to serve as Ender’s emotional connection to a threatened world.

About that threat: It seems that at some prior time the Earth was attacked by insect-like creatures called Formics. Earth’s warriors fought off the Formics, but the threat of another invasion remains.

Early on, Ender falls under the tutelage of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), a military commander who has been searching for a youthful warrior to lead the charge against the Formics.

A militarist to the bone, Graff believes that one big battle can eliminate the threat of future wars. For Graff, preemptive strikes are the quickest route to peace. If he weren’t being played by Ford, perhaps Dick Cheney could have auditioned for the role.

Throughout Ender’s training — a combination of boot camp combined with a video-game competition — Graff pushes Ender hard: He beleives he finally has discovered a kid with the requisite tactical instincts to take on the Formics once and for all.

Graff often is seen in the company of a psychological officer (Viola Davis). Davis’s character advocates for Ender’s mental well-being, something in which Graff has no interest.

Butterfield, who appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, does an good job combing the geeky and violent impulses that define Ender. From time-to-time, Ender question’s the idea that conflicts are best resolved with healthy applications of violence. Butterfield succeeds in making Ender’s internal conflicts real.

As he advances through his training, Ender comes into conflict with another cadet (Moises Arias), a young man who seems to have a Napoleon complex. Petra, a cadet played by Hailee Steinfeld, helps Ender learn the ropes.

But the real star of this portion of the movie is a training facility where the cadets face off in a zero-gravity environment. Hood returns to this special-effects well a little too often. Repetition sets in.

The movie’s third act offers some redemption. Ender moves into the final stage of his training, which involves preparing to lead the Earth’s forces into a decisive battle with the Formics.

At this point, he meets Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), the warrior who lead Earth’s forces to victory in the first encounter with the Formics.

Replete with a Maori-style facial tattoo that makes him look like a futuristic Queequeg, Kingsley apes the one-note severity of the other adults in the movie, but projects more depth than Ford, whose return to sci-fi will conjure for viewers a version of Han Solo with less personality.

Hood and his technical team save the best for last, using Ender’s final training exercise as occasion to unfurl a series of dazzling special effects that add a level of sensory thrill that should please genre fans.

I won’t spoil the ending, but those familiar with the story know that the story probably is intended as a cautionary tale. In truth, though, Ender’s Game derives more energy from its staunch militarism than from any other source.

A summary: Ender’s Game has been made with enough competence to please fans of the series and perhaps to expand that audience a bit. The entire enterprise has a juvenile flavor, interrupted by occasional bouts of brow furrowing as the story attempts to grapple with Big Questions. Unlike Ender, the movie doesn’t emerge at the top of the sci-fi class, but it’s nowhere near the bottom. And if sequels loom, there’s plenty of room for improvement after what can be called a decent enough start.

[ More Denerstein. ]


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