The 1985 novel Ender’s Game is a seminal work in science fiction, in which a worldwide military psychologically profiles children in order to find the most tactically gifted, and utilizes video games to hone their skills. It contains one of the finest plot twists in literature and was often described by author Orson Scott Card as impossible to film.
Fast-forward 28 years later to a world that only takes breaks from Call of Duty to complain about drone strikes and Ender’s Game doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Well, except for the part about aliens. Earth is years removed from being ravaged by an aggressive, insectoid race called the Formics. They were repelled at great cost, but Earth remains engaged in a protracted cold war.
Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the youngest of three children, unique in and of itself because of an Earthwide two-child policy. In training, Ender beats Stilson, another cadet, at a handheld video game. He’s later confronted by Stilson and, despite being smaller and weaker, Ender puts Stilson on the ground. Not content to just win this fight, Ender beats Stilson mercilessly. His reasoning? To win all the future fights before they happen.
When Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) learns of this, he immediately promotes Ender to the orbital Battle School. This is the sort of tactical reasoning he treasures. Think of Battle School as a more Spartan version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, in space, and with Quidditch replaced by zero-gravity laser tag.
Ender is Graff’s hand-picked favorite to lead Earth’s fleet against the Formics, and this means he’s fast-tracked. His training is done through simulation and most often takes the shape of video games – even Ender’s psychological examination is done through a hidden game on his tablet.
What makes Ender’s Game enthralling is how Ender’s psychology is portrayed. We follow alongside Ender’s every thought, from the way he strategizes around bullies to how he rebels against the ranking adults to create a following among his fellow cadets. His only soft spot is his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), their shared history consisting mostly of surviving their sociopathic older brother.
Ender’s Game has long been a sought-after property for film studios. It was circled by many directors, including a tragic seven-year love affair with Wolfgang Petersen, who boasted Oscar-nominated films such as Das Boot, In the Line of Fire, and The Perfect Storm. Who finally got to direct Ender’s Game? Gavin Hood, director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine…naturally?
My biggest complaint about Ender’s Game is also its biggest strength: Hood’s direction lacks flourish. There’s little sense of wonder at going to school in space. The romantic, sci-fi beauty of Star Wars and the sense of awe inherent in Gravity are lacking. Ender is trained to disregard his sense of wonder, but that shouldn’t mean that I have to as well. This lack of flourish aids in the film’s economy of storytelling, however. There’s not a scene here that isn’t important to the story or that doesn’t tell us something new about Ender. There’s no wasted motion. That’s an incredible feat. Maybe it’s what 28 years of development does for a film.
Butterfield, who you may remember from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, is phenomenal, and Ford has recently turned in a host of overlooked performances that are simultaneously scary and dryly comic. Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), Viola Davis (The Help), Ben Kingsley (Ghandi), and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) round out a solid cast. That’s nine Oscar nominations and one win, if you’re counting, and it shows.
Ender’s Game doesn’t feel meaty while you’re watching it, but it’s chock full of questions about war and how we treat our soldiers. At one point, Graff tells Ender that the purpose of this war is “to end all other wars.” That was also the purpose of World War I.
The novel managed to be both a staple for anti-military protesters and on the recommended reading list for officers in the U.S. Marine Corps. The film is just as easy to swallow and challenging to think about. As a tale about understanding this single, complicated character, Ender’s Game is a brilliant achievement. In many ways, it feels more like biography than science-fiction. It’s rated PG-13 for some violence, a few spaceships blowing up, and that plot twist that won’t get out of my head, even if I knew it was coming.
A version of this review by Gabriel Valdez appears in the 11/7/13 edition of La Vernia News.