Orson Scott Card's sci-fi novel Ender's Game was published in 1985, and in the 28 years that elapsed before the book became a film, the idea of children trained to fight by orders of an unfeeling government has been repeatedly co-opted, most notably by a certain tale of a beautiful young archer named Katniss. Indeed, comparisons between Ender's Game and The Hunger Games are inevitable, but the key similarity between the two is that neither film really explores or, in the case of The Hunger Games, even acknowledges the disturbing brutality that lies at the core of their intricately-constructed worlds.
To its credit, Ender's Game, under the clean, straightforward direction of Gavin Hood (one of the X-Men movies, it's hard to keep track), does have a bracing, steel-grey self-seriousness and interest in the psychology of what it takes to be a leader. And in the future depicted here, Earth can use all the self-serious leaders it can get.
Ender Wiggins: 'Sci-fi Christ figure' in warrior garb
The action, which Hood adapted from Card's book, takes place fifty years after our planet repelled an invasion by an insect-like alien race called the Formics. The militaristic government has since begun recruiting youngsters to train for Round Two which, according to one of the many information-bearing monitors that constitute much of Ender's Game gorgeous production design, gets as close as 28 days away.
Initially, Ender Wiggins may not look like anyone's idea of a fighter and, as embodied by a rather blank Asa Butterfield (Martin Scorsese's Hugo), he's not even particularly likable. He's scrawny, red-eyed and has the disadvantage of being the third child born in a society that limits parents to two children. And yet, like other sci-fi Christ figures, his destiny is about to change.
In the passages of Gavin Hood's adaptation that click, he provides sharp, clear reasoning as to why Ender has the psychological make-up of a potential leader. At school, he pummels a bully because he "wanted to win that fight, and all the fights after that." In a couple of clever beats, Ender defuses conflict using shrewd rhetoric that avoids any use of violence.
These attributes attract the interest of the government, represented by cold-hearted, single-minded Col. Graff (Harrison Ford in his best basso profondo) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), the only one who even hints at what's ultimately being asked of these children. They agree to send Ender to an orbiting Battle School where teams of young "launchies" (including an underused Hailee Steinfeld) compete to weed out the strong from the weak.
'Ender's Game': 'Kid-empowerment' Hollywood style
The cruelty of fighting forces comprised of gung-ho kids too green to understand what they're getting into is not an idea you'll see examined here. Instead, much of this will be ingested as fairly typical kid-empowerment stuff about finding your destiny and becoming so respected and valued by adults that they're compelled to salute you. All that is mixed in with a whole heap of war simulations that become awfully repetitive and prove no substitute for the forward momentum that only real dramatic conflict can provide. If Gavin Hood felt pressure to deliver on a potential franchise by appeasing the iPad generation with training scenes and videogame sessions, that's a pity, no matter how polished those sequences might be.
Mercenary motives could also explain why Hood pays scant attention to Ender's family, including his cruel and jealous brother (Jimmy Pinchak) and his protective sister (Abigail Breslin). Had these relationships been explored, Ender might have been a character worth some emotional investment and not just a cypher climbing the ranks of command while facing increasingly difficult tests meant to challenge and harden him. These tests culminate in Ender's final evaluation, a simulated attack on the Formics' staging planet. Success would cement his status as Mankind's replacement savior for the legendary Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley, still deciding if he's a B-movie hack or a prestige actor), who saved the world during the first Formic invasion fifty years earlier.
'Ender's Game': As complex as it gets given today's studio environment
Ender's performance during the attack, where he stands behind a podium like an orchestra conductor, balletically moving his arms and barking orders, is a freak show of laser blasts, flying ships, and deep, yawning sounds (including those of composer Steve Jablonsky, provider of the terrific, brooding score). It is as engrossing as it is overwrought.
However, its aftermath, whose details are best experienced with no foreknowledge, is the film's best fusion of action, consequence and interpersonal conflict. It allows Ender to take a moral stance, which comes as a shock considering the movie's otherwise plodding trajectory. It crystallizes the inevitable moment when a young person realizes their elders are flawed and their actions deserve to be questioned. And if their answers lack credibility by virtue of their flaws, they must find the answers on their own.
It is here, at this sequel-baiting denouement, that we leave Ender Wiggin, a character who becomes most interesting when it's (almost) too late. Otherwise, Ender's Game is about as good a film as you can squeeze out of a morally complex source work given today's studio environment. In case you're wondering, that's not really a compliment.
Ender's Game (2013). Dir.: Gavin Hood. Scr.: Gavin Hood; from Orson Scott Card's novel. Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Viola Davis, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Khylin Rhambo, Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak, Nonso Anozie, Conor Carroll, Caleb J. Thaggart, Cameron Gaskins, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Andrea Powell, Kyle Russell Clements, Brandon Soo Hoo, Wendy Miklovic, Jasmine Kaur, Han Soto.
Asa Butterfield and Abigail Breslin in Ender's Game photo: Summit Entertainment / Lionsgate Pictures.