Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Asa Butterfield, Abigail Breslin, Hailee Steinfeld, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Moises Arias, Aramis Knight, Nonso Anozie, Andrea Powell, Brendan Meyer, Han Soto. Written by Gavin Hood, from the novel by Orson Scott Card.
A film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s young adult sci-fi Ender’s Game has been rumored almost as soon as it was published nearly thirty years ago, with an array of producers and directors attached to the project over the past decade-plus. With similar genre fare (think The Hunger Games) raking it in at the box office in recent years, Card’s classic finally gets its due.
Ender’s Game takes place in the not-so-distant future, years after an alien race called the Formics has attacked Earth. The planet managed to hold them off, and decades later is preparing for another war. Humanity’s last hope rests in their best young minds, who are being groomed into becoming tactical warfare leaders before they hit puberty.
One of those recruits is Ender Wiggin (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield), a ‘third child’ who is trying to make it in the military academy after siblings Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin) have been passed over. Ender’s tactics against a school bully – or more specifically, his motivations behind the tactics – lead Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to select him for Battle School.
That’s where the bulk of Ender’s Game takes place, an orbiting space station where Ender and other recruits learn tactics in a zero-gravity “game” as teams of cadets face off against each other in a capture-the-flag-like scenario. Here, under the tutelage of Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie), Ender rises up through the ranks with Petra Arkanian (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld) and others.
While the beginning and end of the film feel rushed, Battle School is where Ender’s Game really finds its footing. With enough time devoted to developing characters and themes, this middle segment – which, with its more esoteric training methodology, reminded me of the kung fu classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin – is genuinely engaging; the rest of the movie would have benefitted from a similarly relaxed pace.
Throughout most of the film, we never see the Formics, only the CGI swarm of their ships and technology. Battles are not won with gunfire but with military strategy directed from a safe distance; this impersonal approach to warfare is one of the story’s key themes, and just as relevant now as when the novel was published thirty years ago.
When Card wrote the novel, the video game craze of the 1980s was at its height; the tactical perspective on warfare had a special appeal to the Pac-Man generation, as did the ultimate relevance of the titular “Game”.
And while contemporary video games like Call of Duty may accurately re-create warfare from a ground soldier’s POV, overall strategy tends to get lost in the gunfire. Ironically, satellite imagery from actual modern warfare, in which targets are selected and missiles deployed, more resembles a 1980s “game”. The climactic revelation of Ender’s Game couldn’t be more relevant.
Card, a politically-outspoken Mormon (and great-grandson of Brigham Young), has recently come under fire for his views on homosexuality and gay marriage, with some groups launching campaigns to boycott the film. It’s hard to pinpoint any specific religious ideology in Ender’s Game, but it certainly offers a different perspective than the usual sci-fi blockbuster, which is more than welcome.
Ender’s Game was written and directed by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, who previously made the Oscar-winning Tsotsi and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. While the finished product may lack the visionary touch that would have made this adaptation soar, Hood has done an admirable job with the once-thought “unfilmable” material.
This is a condensed, abbreviated version of the novel – entire subplots (including a major one featuring Ender’s siblings) have been excised, and the timescale has been greatly shortened – that may not please diehard fans, but the core themes have been retained. We finally have an adaptation of Ender’s Game, and it’s a surprisingly faithful one, to boot.
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