War is a Universal Language
By: J. Scott
Watch it… if you’re prepared for a challenging and sometimes gut-wrenching film that faithfully adapts Orson Scott Card’s novel into a visually stunning and mentally stimulating tour-de-force.
Avoid it… if you’re seeking an entertaining and exciting blockbuster adventure, for Ender’s Game retains the cautionary nature of its source novel, complete with all its harsh unpleasantness.
Ender’s Game is a cautionary tale that looks like a space adventure. It opens with a grand battle scene, and promises many more, but it is rarely thrilling or adventurous. Instead, it spends much of its time probing into the darkest corners of the human psyche, brutally tearing its characters down in such ways as to discover who they are underneath. Like the novel it’s based off of, it seems conscious of the notion that the character is what one is in the dark. In Ender’s Game, the threat of invasion has drawn a curtain across the bright sun of freedom; the dark is all around and nearly everyone manages to do something that they are either bound to regret, or that they should.
The opening of Ender’s Game explains that many years ago, Earth was attacked by an alien species known as the Formics (referred to colloquially as “Bugs” due to their insectoid appearance) and the invasion was barely driven back by the unexpected heroics of pilot, Mazer Rackham. In the time since, the planet Earth has militarized and, fearing a second invasion, has built a fleet designed to take the fight back to the Formics. Attempts at communication with the alien race have failed. Since their thought processes are poorly understood by most humans, the military has taken to recruiting children as military leaders, hoping that their greater capacity for learning and improvisation will help turn the tide of the war in humanity’s favor.
Admission to the Battle School from which the commanders are chosen is both prestigious and highly competitive. One such applicant is Andrew Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young boy who shows promising potential. The head of the Battle School program, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), takes a particular interest in Wiggin. Graff seeks to isolate the boy, cutting him off from any support and forcing him into difficult and dangerous situations designed to mold Ender into a tactical and efficient killer.
The novel of Ender’s Game has been a staple of middle school reading for several decades now, but for the sake of the dozen or so who haven’t read it, I’ll try to avoid diverging any further details. The plot of Ender’s Game is not quite so interesting as what it examines. Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film version of Ender’s Game is not interested in individual human characters as it is in the concept of humanity. Unlike 2001, it is otherwise interested in what makes the human society tick. To this end, it utilizes its characters as broad archetypes, some built around gender, some around position in society, some symbolizing moral stances or dilemmas.
Ender, as the perspective character, straddles many of these roles; he seems to move in character between different gender, rank and ethical archetypes, dipping into each one before moving on to the next. In many ways, the character seems to be a metaphor for humanity’s self-awareness about itself and its ability to reason through its own patterns and impulses.
All this is shot across gorgeous sets and backdrops, sometimes so stunning that they begin to distract from the intimate nature of the film. In its best scenes, the effects and visuals are an artistry all to themselves– there is a scene during one of the many zero-gravity war games where Ender launches off toward the opposing team, spinning around and firing his practice guns in such a fluid motion that the visual quality was almost that of a motion-painting. At other times, the effects are an overwhelming distraction – particularly in some of the latter sections, where the flurry of endless swarms of fighters and battleships are more readily inspiring of nausea than of awe.
Much of the film, though, is confined to the narrow walls of the Battle School and other installations. These scenes are shot in such a way as to be especially confining and isolating, with even wide corridors shot from such angles as to make them seem limited and confining. A shallow focus is often used to isolate certain characters or objects within a frame, leaving the rest of the frame out of focus. This is sense of unease that is further supported by the no-nonsense nature of the Battle School itself: This is no Kiddie Boot Camp this film features; Ender’s Game makes no bones about the fact that its protagonists are essentially child soldiers and it seems frank in its portrayal of a future Earth that is essentially a fascist dictatorship.
All this adds up to a film that is both intellectually stimulating and deeply unsettling. This should be of no surprise to fans of the novel, who will be happy to hear that the film version of Ender’s Game is one of the most loyal adaptations of a book to hit theaters of quite some time, rivaling even the early Harry Potter films in terms of pure adaptational precision. This is undoubtedly due in part to the diligence of screenwriter and director Gavin Hood, whose filmography boasts such difficult films as Tsotsi in 2005 and Rendition in 2007. These are challenging films about tough-yet-relevant issues, and Hood has shot Ender’s Game with the same passion and detail.
Of course, for everything that Ender’s Game is, there must also be something that it is not. It is challenging and provocative science fiction that will no doubt appeal to fans of the genre, but it is not a blockbuster in the traditional sense. Don’t expect to find the spirited battles of The Avengers (2012) or the gleeful destruction of Gravity (2013) here. Even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises last year was a more adventurous and less weighty experience than what comes to pass in Ender’s Game. Fans of young adult literature seeking a space-faring The Hunger Games (2012) might be more satisfied, provided they’re ready to combine The Hunger Games’ dystopian brutality with a whole new level of philosophical and psychological probing.
Ender’s Game stares straight into the darkest corners of humanity and doesn’t blink. It challenges perceptions and makes a mockery of good intentions, presenting zero-sum games where every answer is a game-over. It challenges both viewers and its protagonist to make new answers. It is excellent viewing if you’re prepared for it. But it’s not fun and it’s unevenly entertaining. You’ve been warned.