The central theme to Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game is the consequences of violence in warfare. On paper however, it appears that this is a movie about teenage gamers who save the world. This may seem like pandering in a time where video games like Grand Theft Auto V can make a billion dollars in one week – but Orson Scott Card was certainly on to something when he wrote the novel in 1985. There are weighty issues of morality and cause and effect behind all the polished CGI and flashy technology that go beyond appealing to the masses with jaded thumbs.”
Set in a distant future, Earth is under threat from the ‘Formics’ (an insect-like species). A heroic pilot is the only thing that saved Earth from destruction and the Formics retreat. Years later, the International Fleet decides to recruit young teenagers to military strategic school. Teenagers’ militaristic aptitude is heightened due to the prevalence of video games and the major military posts are held by those under the age of 18. Ender Wiggin (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield) is a young teenager who is enrolled in the International Fleet and is recruited by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to become the Earth’s resistance commanding officer. Ender joins Battle School – a massive boot camp in space and begins his education in intergalactic warfare in a race against time before the next Formic attack.
This could have been the Twilight version of Starship Troopers and justified or even romanticised militarism but instead South African writer-director Gavin Hood’s adaptation is surprisingly sophisticated as well as entertaining. We are given an insight into the effects of military life and notions of genocide on a young boy. The teenagers of this world have become analytical, tactical but emotionally and morally removed. Ender perhaps shows the only sense of compassion and empathy for his enemy. He is introverted, shy and bullied but it is his compassion and intelligence that make him a cunning strategist and ultimately, heroic. Ender is not like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen for instance – a reluctant hero whose heroism comes through moral choices. Ender is a character who seeks out greatness and heroism but must confront his actions and their implications. He is also self aware and frightened of his propensity to violence. There is nothing revering in an early scene where Ender swiftly and viciously despatches a bully – Hood keeps on message that brutality is messy, destructive and to be feared.
There is much to be said of the superficial elements of this film as well as the thematic overtones. The CGI is polished and juxtaposed with impressive locations. The training sequences in zero gravity are thrilling and executed efficiently. Harrison Ford seems engaged with the material and apparently doesn’t sleepwalk his way through another studio movie although his character is given little to do. His character is stern, morally and ethically ambiguous and a paternal crutch for the complex Ender. This is counteracted by Viola Davis character who is seemingly more detached from the deconstruction of Ender but shows a greater maternal connection. The conflict of the film and “what will be left” of these soldiers once the shooting and explosions stop is familiar to American cinema in the post Vietnam and Iraq wars era. However despite these characterisations, the rest of the supporting cast are left without much to do. Abigail Breslin (Zombieland, Little Miss Sunshine) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) serve as emotional crutches to Ender but otherwise serve little purpose. The dialogue too can be sterile and distancing. There is sci-fi jargon and opaque references that will be welcomed by fans of Card’s work but might alienate wider audiences.
Speaking of the author of the source material, much has been made of Orson Scott Card’s homophobic beliefs and comments over the years. Lionsgate have even addressed the issue in a press release distancing themselves from the author’s views but praising the material. There is nothing inherently in this movie that represents those views and should not deter cinema goers – albeit one quip during a bullying scene that may be construed as homophobic.
The themes and motifs in this film are positive – that if it relates to its young target audience could be this year’s sleeper hit like last year’s The Hunger Games. This is easily Hood’s best film since the Oscar winning Tsotsi silencing those who have written him off after the flawed Rendition and the disaster of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If the Transformers franchise can provide mind numbing carnage with no consequence for destruction and death – one would hope a film that reconciles the very opposite can strike a chord too.