With Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis. Written and directed by Gavin Hood. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material. 114 minutes.
If you need proof that many film critics don’t “get” science fiction, look no further than the reviews for ENDER’S GAME. Those reviews referring to its source novel as “YA Fiction” or comparing the movie to a video game make it clear that they are not treating “Ender’s Game” with the respect that they bring to most other films that they review. Based on Orson Scott Card’s award-winning novel, Gavin Hood’s adaptation is one of the best book-to-screen transitions of any work of science fiction. It is a serious film worth taking seriously.
Andrew Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield in a performance that is wise beyond his years) is recruited into a military training program. What’s unusual is that Ender, as he is known, is a kid, and he is being trained to fight a battle with the Formics, ant-like aliens who attacked Earth a number of years ago and cost countless lives before being pushed back. Earth’s military has been gearing up ever since for what they feel is the inevitable next battle, and think that only children have the creativity and flexibility to win the high tech fight.
Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) is in charge of the training school and pushes his young charges to the breaking point. His theory is that if Ender feels he can rely on no one but himself, he will be motivated to win at all costs. Major Anderson (Viola Davis) disagrees but is outranked. The story builds to Ender’s final test and the devastating results that follow. Those who insist that the movie is no more than a big screen video game will have missed the entire point of the film.
The bulk of the film has to do with Ender’s training, and how he is always isolated and put down. Yet he shows independence of thought, a genius for tactics and strategy, and natural leadership ability. It’s precisely through the abusive training that Graff hopes to make Ender fit for battle, even cutting him off from his family back on Earth, including his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). When Graff tells Ender, “I’m not the enemy,” Ender’s reply is, “I’m not so sure.”
Hood has compressed the details of the story and used shorthand to get across points that are more developed in the novel, but that is to be expected. He gives us what’s important, as in Ender’s pivotal confrontation with the vicious squad leader Bonzo (Moises Arias). Ender’s first approach is to negotiate a truce where they both can “win,” but ultimately he has no choice but to meet violence with violence.
Visually, the film is stunning, and it actually makes good use of the IMAX screen. The performances are solid, with the actors treating their roles with the seriousness they deserve. When Ben Kingsley arrives late in the film as Mazer Rackham, the hero of the last war, there is none of the cheesiness he brought to some of the lesser films he’s walked through. He is all steely––and scary––resolve. Butterfield and Ford carry the weight of the movie well, and if this wasn’t science fiction, there would be Oscar buzz about their work here.
Word must be made about Orson Scott Card, the author of the original novel (and previous short story). Yes, Card is an anti-gay bigot. There’s just no getting around that. No, none of that homophobia appears in the novel or the movie. And, no, Card was paid up front for the movie rights (with no back-end percentage deal) so your buying a ticket does not put a dime into his pocket. If you had any interest in seeing the film but hesitated because of Card’s personal views, put that aside and see “Ender’s Game” on the big screen while you can. It probably won’t be around very long.
While one is hard-pressed to call “Ender’s Game” the best science fiction movie of the year (“Gravity” wins that hand’s down) it is a powerful adaptation of a landmark novel and a stunning achievement for all concerned.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.