The book is better.
I haven’t even read the book, and I know this must be the case, because there’s little here that can account for how highly fans rate the 1985 novel. My soul, alas, was never stirred by this film adaptation. My spirit did not soar. My intellect twitched a bit in ways that made my heart ache disagreeably, however. This Ender’s Game – from writer-director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition) – engages the mind, in some ways that are uncomfortable and yet never intriguingly so, but it does not engage the heart.
I might say that this odd omission could be intentional, because the Big SF Ideas of this strange mashup of Starship Troopers and Harry Potter – gifted kids go to fascist military school! – are ones that seem positive only if your heart is made of stone. Decades after Earth repelled an invasion by insectile aliens who killed tens of millions of humans, the planet is preparing for another invasion by the “Formics” that may or may not come by training all kids in tactics and strategy in the hopes of finding a new “Julius Caesar or a Napoleon” who will win the war decisively. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is plucked from his regular school to attend the orbiting Battle School, because Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), who run the place, think he could be the legendary-scale genius they’re seeking.
And what makes Ender stand out? He accidentally stumbled upon the strategy Earth’s leaders believe is needed to defeat the Formics: preemptive assholery on a personal level and preemptive war on a societal one. Gotta beat up the biggest badass in the yard in order to kill off in him the idea of even thinking about beating you up in the future.
Ender’s Game is all might-makes-right and justification for violence. Ender himself articulates it neatly at one point: “Follow the rules, you lose; choose violence, you win.” What just barely saves the movie as something worth a look for kids (and probably only kids) is that Ender does eventually rebel against the attitudes that his manipulative education has inculcated in him.
But here’s another problem with Ender’s Game. Ender’s about-face is possible because, we’re told, he has a special sort of empathy with his enemies that helps him to understand and even love them. But we never see how this is possible, such as with the many bullies he faces in his various schools, and we certainly see nothing that would explain the empathy he comes to have with the Formics. A certain connection between Ender and the aliens jumps out at the end as an almost mystical thing that is at odds with the film’s science-based approach up to that point. Too much of what is inside Ender’s head is missing in the film for the very dramatic ending to be plausible.
And why is this version of Ender’s Game probably best suited to kids? For one, Ender’s tactics and strategies that amaze his elders don’t seem terribly ingenious. I was stunned, in fact, that all the adults are stunned by how Ender utilizes a new weapon in a battle scenario. How can the people who designed the weapon not have had this in mind? It was the first thing I thought of when I saw the new weapon. Also: While it’s commendable for the film to play around with zero-g ideas – like how there’s no up or down in space – and it’s smart of Ender to have figured this out even on his first trip off the planet, it seems kinda ridiculous that the Formics appear not to have hit upon this fact. Adult fans of SF will find much of what goes on too simplistic.
Watch Ender’s Game with a kid… and talk about it afterward. Unless you’re cool with an endorsement of preemptive violence as a way of life.
ENDER’S GAME (2) • Directed by Gavin Hood •Starring Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld • Rated PG-13 • 114 min. •At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Cannery Row XD