Orson Scott Card‘s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game, is shockingly ahead of its time. It predicted the wide-spread adoption of e-mail and the Internet, the use of drone warfare, and the connection between video games and players causing an emotional disconnect between war and action. The book can also be a bit of a chore because of how much time it takes to describe kids shooting freeze guns behind boxes. Gavin Hood‘s adaptation makes the action come alive, but more importantly, he never forgets the compelling protagonist or the relevant social commentary from Card’s 28-year-old book. The mind games and weariness might fade into the background, but the intensity of the action and performances make the story not just immediate, but exhilarating.
Set in the future, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is training to be in an army of child soldiers who will fight off aliens known as “Formics”. The Formics attacked decades ago and wiped out tens of millions before being inexplicably defeated and returning to their home planet. Determined to never let the aliens attack, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) run an outer-space Battle School to train the cadets, but their focus is Ender, who they believe has the tactical and strategic genius to win the war. But to make Ender reach his full potential, they must try to remove his humanity in order for him to save humanity.
The Battle School and the games aren’t designed to desensitize the kids but to manipulate them towards accepting mass slaughter of an unseen species. Graff says that children learn faster than adults, but he leaves out that they’re also more malleable. They accept the morality they’re provided while an adult might consider the complexities of a pre-emptive strike against the Formics. It’s a stretch to call the Battle School “brainwashing” because the entire populace has been browbeaten into accepting the threat of the Formics’ return. Furthermore, the footage is presented almost like a video game. It goes inside the cockpits and looks at the aerial battles from afar. Once again, Card was ahead of his time. Footage from Vietnam brought home the horrors of war, but he couldn’t have known that footage from the smart bombs in the first Iraq War turned combat into better living through technology (assuming you’re the one with the bombs).
The conflict between the dark power of technology and the thrills it can provide brings Hood into a murky area he sometimes has trouble navigating. The fights inside the zero-gravity Battle Arena are meant to be exciting. The cinematography, score, and editing all build to rousing set pieces where we can witness Ender’s genius. Watching Ender float through zero gravity while firing two freeze guns is a stand-up-and-cheer moment, but it’s a moment where we should feel ambivalent about using a child soldier who will be millions of miles away from the war he’s preparing to fight. However, Hood never draws attention to this juxtaposition. It’s pure action spectacle, and on that level it works, but it comes at the expense of letting the audience feel conflicted.
Nevertheless, the social commentary still remains since it’s embedded in the plot. We know using child soldiers is wrong, but is it okay if they’re trying to save the planet and they’re not in immediate danger? Are we worried about their safety or the desensitization of their actions? Ender is in the tenuous position of understanding the enormity of his goal, but being aware he’s being pushed into that position by people like Graff. When Graff singles out Ender for praise, the Colonel and Ender understand that it will earn the enmity of the other students. Ender’s always being tested, and it makes him both a martyr and a killer.
For the most part, Hood does a good job of conveying Ender’s talent to win a war versus his fear of letting his violent tendencies take control. Inside the Battle Arena and in the friendships he makes with his fellow students, we can see why Ender finds a leadership role alluring. The inviting part is easy; it’s the manipulative side that’s tough. It’s one of the many “games” extending past the battle arena. If it’s not mind games with Graff, it’s power plays with Ender’s squad leader, Bonzo (Moises Arias). The cost of winning these games may lead to promotion, but they also lead to a rearrangement of his personality that causes Ender great distress.
However, the film never takes the wearing away of Ender’s personality as far as it needs to go. This is one of the rare instances where I think a movie would benefit from a montage. Ender’s success is tied to the ebbing of his compassion. The film opens with a quote from Ender that perfectly sums up his inner conflict: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” Graff doesn’t want to turn Ender into an unfeeling robot because empathy is the key to the boy’s success. It’s also his weakness, and Hood never lets us see enough of the latter. We get to relish his victories, but rarely do we have time to feel the emotional cost of those victories
Thankfully, Butterfield’s commanding (no pun intended) performance always holds everything together even when the script or direction is too loose to hammer home the themes. The young actor is absolutely captivating in the role as he runs the gamut of Ender’s emotions. Ender is a fascinating character because he’s both tough and fragile. One doesn’t cover up the other. They’re intertwined, and Butterfield thoughtfully navigates between the two. But when it comes to Ender as the commander, to what Graff is trying to turn the boy into, Butterfield is astounding. In those moments, I would follow that kid through the gates of Hell.
Ender, his fellow cadets, and their teachers have the benefit of not looking their enemy in the eye. They’ve seen the ships from afar, heard the tales, and devoted themselves fully to a reasonable goal of preventing possible annihilation with a pre-emptive strike. But we still don’t have to look the enemy in the eye—the evil of manipulating children to murder millions—and Hood doesn’t want to look either, at least not in a serious, downbeat manner. Ender’s Game sees the creeping darkness in the periphery, but the film quickly floats away, ready to engage the action but reluctant to face the destruction.