There’s a lot to admire about this surprisingly substantial big-budget sci-fi spectacular, but the best thing about it is its radical assumption that kids might respond to a story that’s inextricably intertwined with weighty moral issues.
After all, adults only get 10 or 20 of those in any given year.
Based on the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card (whose recent anti-gay statements haven’t helped the box-office prospects of this $110-million film), “Ender’s Game” arises from the premise that children are better suited for war than adults. At least, the high-tech, computer-driven, primarily cerebral war of the future. And for reasons that are queasily logical: children are capable of processing complex data better than adults and they are intuitive, decisive and, because they are barely old enough to be aware of mortality, comparatively fearless.
In “Ender’s Game,” the idea of putting children in command of Earth’s armies has developed out of necessity. The human race has barely survived an attack by the ant-like Formics, an advanced race whose strategies are extremely complex and difficult to decipher. But the brightest young minds, specially trained from early childhood, are best equipped for the challenge. Which is why young Ender Wiggin (an impressive Asa Butterfield of “Hugo”), an unpopular, brainy type, has caught the attention of training commander Graff (Harrison Ford), who thinks he just may be The One — a prodigy capable of leading the Earth’s combined armies and destroying its enemy.
It’s easy to imagine where that concept might have gone if this were a more common sort of movie: young Ender rising to the challenge, embracing his destiny and achieving glory. But there’s something much more interesting going on in “Ender’s Game.” Part of the boy’s training involves a painful process of forcing him into social isolation. He’s conflicted about the idea of using force against his enemies. And we learn that the armies he will lead aren’t preparing to defend against another attack. Instead, they are engaging in a preemptive strike intended to exterminate the enemy.
It’s complicated, in other words, and “Ender’s Game” winds up going in unexpected directions, with a major twist at the end that delivers considerable emotional impact. There’s nothing in director Gavin Hood’s screen adaptation, not surprisingly, that reflects Card’s anti-gay sentiments — in fact, Ender is driven by empathy, even toward Formics. A little more surprisingly, there’s little in the way of political bias, including judgmental attitudes one way or the other about militarism, unless you include debate about the acceptability of genocide. Instead, there’s simply an attempt to come to terms with big moral issues in very human terms, reminding us that Hood adapted and directed the devastating South African drama “Tsotsi” before directing the not-quite-so-profound “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
He clearly learned some lessons in mega-budget moviemaking from that experience, though. Each of those 100-million-plus budget dollars is evident on the screen and “Ender’s Game” features some truly impressive visual effects as Ender trains by orchestrating massive, extraordinarily complicated battles in space between his forces and the Formics in 3D computer simulations. Impressive enough that this one’s worth seeing in an IMAX theater if that’s an option.
Most likely, though, anyone who sees “Ender’s Game” will walk away thinking more about its ideas than its special effects.