It seems obvious that a film featuring child soldiers, genocide and a white guy with Maori face tattoos would spark controversy. What is less obvious about Gavin Hood’s adaptation of “Ender’s Game,” a 1985 science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, however, is the reason for the debate surrounding the film.
Major backlash against the movie began in the form of mass boycotts after Card’s ardent condemnation of homosexuality and homosexual rights came to light, leading those involved in the film to distance themselves from Card and his politics. Actively separating the art from the artist is only the first of the many weightier challenges the film presents its viewers with. What feels at first like a typical, superficial space adventure reveals itself to be a much deeper look at the implications of war and peace and the emotional and psychological effects on those involved.
“Ender’s Game” is a story of leadership, futuristic military strategy and the ambiguities of the morality of war, and it pairs big questions with big thrills in a blockbuster spectacular that surpasses expectations and points the way for the future of young-adult science fiction.
While navigating the morality of selectively supporting an artist may be difficult, one thing is for sure: The film itself is a triumph. “Ender’s Game” follows the ascension of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) through the ranks of the Battle School, which trains children to serve in the International Fleet. An alien race known as the Formics, whose invasion of Earth was only narrowly thwarted once before — by the heroic and mysterious Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) — threatens to return at any moment and colonize the planet for its water. The young cadet Ender quickly shows himself to be a tactical genius and is singled out by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) as the fleet’s best bet to save the human race.
Butterfield, the 16-year-old British actor who starred in “Hugo” in 2011 and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” in 2008, commands the film with both a cold killer instinct and, in contrast, an empathetic, childlike understanding of both his friends and his enemies. While Ender’s moral and psychological development compete with big-budget CGI graphics and futuristic battle scenes for screen time, Butterfield makes the most of his character’s rushed growth. He recognizes the absurdity of being trained to rewire his natural instinct but also accepts the responsibility of protecting his family and planet by any means necessary. “That’s what they want from us,” a frustrated Ender tells another young cadet after discovering the idiosyncrasies of his adult commanders. “Follow the rules, you lose. Choose violence, you win.”
The rest of the film’s young cast — notably Hailee Steinfeld as Petra, Moises Arias as Bonzo and Abigail Breslin as Valentine, Ender’s sister — deliver their complicated roles with a maturity that moves “Ender’s Game” out of the realm of such recent young-adult-novel-to-film adaptations as “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” and establishes its all-ages appeal and genre-defying quality. Despite the youthfulness of its cast, however, the film grapples with issues and themes more targeted toward adult audiences than to kids.
Fans of the book may be disappointed by what gets left out in the film’s 114-minute run time — elements such as Locke’s and Demosthenes’ political writings — but those unfamiliar with Card’s original story can understand and enjoy the film even without any background. Hood proves himself to be completely capable of reimagining the story in a way that is still engaging and immersive despite its relative brevity. The battle school and its training arena translate beautifully to film and are featured in some of the movie’s most stunning visual scenes, such as the zero-gravity war games and training sequences.
“Ender’s Game” is one of rare films that is truly captivating from start to finish. It may be marked by controversy, but there is little in the movie itself that diminishes how enjoyable the intergalactic battle tale is. If anything, Card’s extreme conservatism has brought some misguided attention to an attention-deserving film that, like Ender Wiggin himself, has proven itself to be an intelligent and fearless success.
Grace Lovio covers film. Contact her at [email protected].