(MINOR SPOILERS) Ender’s Game arrives on screen awash with controversy, although little of it relates to the film itself. No doubt there are fans of the book dissatisfied with yet another Hollywood adaptation scooping up and spitting out a mangled version of their beloved text. The negative press mostly relates to author Orson Scott Card’s rampant homophobia, and has subsequently overwhelmed any conversation regarding the movie. I’ll try not to do likewise. So here’s my verdict on Ender’s Game, the movie; it’s… well, it’s okay.
The only Orson Scott Card I've read is his novelisation of The Abyss, a long time ago back when I was genuinely a fan of James Cameron and lapped up anything connected to his films. Apparently Ender’s Game represented a challenge of "unfilmable" proportions (often a pronouncement on tomes subsequently turned into average movies), because so much of it is predicated on the point of view of Ender and so exists in his head. That, and its paedo-friendly content.
First published in 1985, the novel concerns mankind’s war with an insectoid species (known as Buggers there, and Formics in the film). In order to defeat the aliens once and for all, the military takes an unusual tack; they enlist children. It seems that their supple young minds give them a tactical advantage against the enemy. One of these whippersnappers is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield). He shows such aptitude and anticipation of his opponents’ behaviour that Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) really thinks he could be “the one” (I don’t know to what extent Card’s novel uses this kind of messianic language, but there’s been such an overkill of “chosen” heroes in recent years that they should have given the theme a wide berth). Much of the film concerns the ups-and-downs of Ender’s boot camp training, as the juniors are prepared for eventual confrontation with the real enemy; this takes the form of zero-gravity war games and computer battle simulations.
The kids have been aged-up by a few years from the novel. There were probably a slew of good reasons for this, but the most valid one (finding young actors who could deliver consistently strong performances) achieves variable results. Butterfield's not bad; he’s certainly better here than in Hugo (when he’d have been about the age of the novel’s Ender). Perhaps fortunately for him, the script is so perfunctory that he can't really be blamed for failing to emote the anger, conflict, and all-important empathy Ender feels towards his foes. It quickly becomes clear that the movie is paying lip service to the themes and plot progressions of the source material. As a result it devolves into a series of recognisable tropes; triumph over bullying; conflict with superiors; persevering and rising to leadership through tests. Depictions of cadet training will forever look to the Full Metal Jacket standard and come up short; this isn’t even close (Nonso Anozie’s no bullshit Sergeant Dap is a big cuddly podgeball compared to R Lee Ermy).
Here’s the thing; there are some reasonably strong ideas in the movie, but they're ironed out into "and then this happens" moments. Ender’s rise from outcast to leader is all-too easy and, when his refusal to fight any more is laughably resolved by Graff’s acquiescence to his demand for the return of email privileges, it starts to resemble an adolescent Top Gun, unable to meet the material’s aspirations towards depth.
Of which, Ender’s Game seems to be actively scoring points in Philosophy Class. There’s a debate over the justification of the utilitarian position that appears to be central. The military takes the view that the sacrifices (of the kids’ childhoods, of the alien species) are valid because the outcome is the preservation of humankind. Ender, through his pervasive empathy (but also his capacity for violence; it is his “love” for his enemy that allows him to defeat his enemy) arrives at a different position; he does not contend that the actions of his superiors are flat-out wrong (a deontological approach, dealing in moral absolutes), rather that their reasons are. By the close of the picture, he appears to display the traits of virtue ethics (where one’s inner values make one moral, and one’s actions are an extension of character rather than the defining factor of one’s morality). While the horribly trite final lines (something about seeing if he can broker peace as effectively as he can wage war) might suggest a morally absolute approach, they really reflect only the engagement of Ender’s now virtuous state. That these themes tend translate in a pedestrian or platitudinous manner may be either a consequence of the compression of the novel or simply because Card didn’t have much going on in the first place.
Nevertheless, this is consistently watchable. Perversely, that’s in part because of all the tried-and-tested clichés it should really have been avoiding. It’s hard to go too far wrong with the "He's the One" blueprint (well, you’d think). The basic training and strategy games are effectively realised; director (and screenplay writer) Gavin Hood does a tremendous job making the Zero G fights visually coherent and engaging. The bullyboys are appropriately hissable (Moises Arias deserves particular credit for his loathsome performance) and the reaction of the adults, although entirely predictable (Harrison keeps shouting about the highest scores ever, Viola Davis waffles concerns for the poor boy’s soul), adds a spur to the proceedings. Later, the simulations descend into any-movie CGI spaceships and explosions. These are indistinct in design and uninspired in execution. It also seems that video games of the future have graphics up to the standard of that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie now more than a decade old.
The result of this aggressively formulaic approach is the feeling that the "violence is bad" message (or rather, the “violence is bad under certain circumstances but we’re a bit vague and ineffectual about what they are” message) is just window-dressing for how cool it is to blow shit up. Which may help to explain why this is suggested reading for the US Marines. It’s curious that Ender’s comes out the same year as After Earth, another filming apparently extolling the virtues of a “hard love” upbringing as a means for the boy to become a better man. Perhaps this is all a warm-up to reintroducing the draft.
Amongst the mish-mash of subtexts are some rather clumsy parallels between the conflict with the Formics (is insectoid the only sort of alien these days?) and the US’s policy towards the Middle East. Underlining this, Ender makes pals with a Muslim boy who greets him on each occasion with "As-salamu alaykum". Is there a nascent suggestion here that well-intentioned Ender (the US) will lead all nationalities, races and cultures (his squadron, the aliens) to a glorious and better future? Maybe the producers were just extra-alert to the furore surrounding Card and tried to make the film as contrastingly inclusive as possible. Such sops do nothing to make it distinctive in its own right, though. Ender even makes friends with a ginger.
Harrison Ford is present and just about correct. He isn't quite asleep, which is something, but it's increasingly distracting how his nose appears to be spreading steadily to the right. There's also a scene where a bit of food on his chin disappears one shot later. It’s easy to be distracted when post-‘80s Harrison is on the screen. Ben Kingsley can now retire content in the knowledge that there are no nationalities or ethnic groups left for him to play.
There’s certainly no reason not to make controversial material into something very different, or to steer clear of adapting a dodgy author’s work unless that work itself is intrinsically loathsome. Even then, Paul Verhoeven retooled Robert Heinlein’s pro-fascist novel Starship Troopers into a superb satire of the same. The problem with Ender’s Game is that it isn’t really much of anything. Gavin Hood is forgiven for all things X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which were probably only partly his fault) but this picture’s strongest ideas and themes are ultimately anaesthetised.