If old-people movies sell fantasies of tossing away your responsibilities in your eighties, kid-friendly movies (which form the vast bulk of Hollywood’s current output) sell fantasies of having the whole world depend on you. Ender’s Game is premised on the notion that only kids can save the Earth from aliens. Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff justifies this by growling something about young minds’ rapid integration of complex information, but we all know the real reason: Kids can ace video games, which science-fiction epics increasingly resemble.
What keeps the movie from being just a tween wish-fulfillment fantasy in space are the deeper ambitions of its source material. Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel is a perennial favorite for brainy kids, broaching issues of violence and moral responsibility through the saga of a very young soldier.
The movie attempts to stage the book’s more cerebral aspects, but screenwriter-director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) never quite brings them to life. The result is a fairly standard kids’ adventure flick with an eventual twist that feels like the start of a more interesting movie. Unfortunately, it’s the end of this one.
Asa Butterfield (Hugo) plays Ender Wiggin, a teenage tactical genius. According to Ford and Viola Davis, officers of a global military regime, he represents humanity’s best hope of stopping a future attack by the Formics, an alien race that devastated Earth years earlier. As their name suggests, they’re essentially giant ants.
The kid is packed off to an orbiting Battle School to play war games in zero gravity while his superiors play mind games with him. Graff aims to mold Ender into a sociopathic killer by alienating him from his fellow cadets, while Davis’ character argues for a softer touch. Splitting the difference, Ender meets bullies with violence — in scenes that have been toned down for the film version — and forms friendships with fellow outcasts such as Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld).
Ender appears to be the only character in the movie who’s allowed to have more than one dimension; none of his fellow students emerge as compelling in their own right. It’s lucky, then, that Butterfield has the skill to convey the soulfulness under the boy’s stoic exterior. Yet he doesn’t master the steely qualities that might make this child soldier genuinely disturbing. The viewer is never in doubt that Ender, like Harry Potter, will do the right thing when he knows all the facts. Lord of the Flies in space this isn’t.
As kid-aimed SF goes, Ender’s Game lacks the Saturday-morning-cartoon pacing of the Star Wars prequels, and that’s a plus in my book. But it’s heavy on the claustrophobic sensations that CGI-rich films tend to induce — reinforced in this case by the story’s airless moral dualisms. Most of the movie’s battle action takes place in digital simulations that are presented as digital simulations, illusions within an illusion. The main exceptions, the zero-G war games, are cool in concept but become a bit of a slog, not staged deftly enough to make us care about the outcome.
In the age of drone strikes, of course, there’s nothing innocent about reducing war to a video game. Ender’s story eventually reveals precisely that, making the movie seem considerably more thought-provoking in retrospect than it does while you’re watching it. What we see on screen, however, is the kid resolving his dilemmas in a way that feels too much like having his hero cake and eating it, too.