"...a mainstream space adventure, and philosophical subtlety wasn't on the table to begin with."

No Easy Answers

(110813) It's nothing less than shocking that Ender's Game is good at all. Stuck in development hell for something like three generations of fans of the Orson Scott Card novel from 1985 to grow out of its target audience, and finally given the breath of life by a writer-director as dubious as Gavin Hood (of the admirable Tsotsi, and the outright foul X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the film comes pre-loaded with a whole lot of baggage that should absolutely murder anything that's even vaguely keeping its eye on a popcorn-movie audience. But it is solid: surely not the best film that the book could have produced - and I should clarify that I have absolutely no stake in the book whatsoever (came to it far too late in life to form the sort of rabidly enthusiastic attachment it seems to engender) - nor a completely rock-solid science-fiction movie totally independent of its story. But it works, and impressively, it does not short-change hefty thematic ideas that are far darker and morally complicated than the film's generic trappings suggest as a realistic possibility.

The story takes place in a militarized future, half a century after humankind won - barely - a war with an insect-like alien race referred to as "Formics". From what we can see, everything about civilization has since been directed with laser-like intensity toward building up enough defensive capability to fend off what is widely perceived as an inevitable second war with the Formics, from the education system to the mass media to population and resource control. Our main character is Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a boy of about 12 years, who is a rare (in this world) third child, with the implication that the government permitted him to be born in order to harvest him for its military training program. This is where we meet him, shortly before his quick instincts, capacity for tactical thought, and a violent streak tempered only somewhat by compassion bring him to the attention of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who is looking for, essentially, a Chosen One. For the current military thinking is that it makes sense to put adolescent children in total control of all tactics, since they are less likely to be encumbered by preexisting notions of what is good and bad strategy. I think we can earnestly debate whether this makes any sense at all, but it's always the fair thing to spot a story its concept, especially when the concept is presented so early as it is here, giving us plenty of time to get used to it.

And so Ender rises through the ranks, making enemies of some cadets and friends of others and setting himself out as quite a special, strange child in all ways. Because, by all means, this is a Chosen One narrative, and not much interested in changing the rules, though it does tweak them something fierce with a series of questions that are voiced more openly and frequently as the film moves on, about whether or not it's even a little bit okay to turn children into murdering psychopaths in order to defeat an existential threat. It's a little bit frustrating how the film shifts from presenting this idea obliquely to presenting it emphatically, especially when the ambivalent Major Anderson (Viola Davis) states it outright in little words. But this is a mainstream space adventure, and philosophical subtlety wasn't on the table to begin with. Let us be grateful instead that something as superficially glossy as this manages to sneak so much honest-to-goodness moral reasoning in underneath the CGI explosions. Still, the movie seeks to entertain, and it does; there are space battle scenes between ships and between individual humans that are gorgeous, balletic explorations of movement in three dimensions even by the standards of the year that Gravity happened.

Outside of Ender and Graff, there aren't many people who could rightfully be called "characters." Ben Kingsley plays veteran hero Mazer Rackham, but he's not given much more to do than look tough, never smile, and speak his dialogue using what appears to be a hybrid cockney/New Zealand accent. Abigail Breslin plays Ender's sister, Valentine, who is the embodiment of compassion. Hailee Steinfeld, does decent work here as Petra Arakanian, Ender's friend and quasi-love interest. The romance is kept very low key since it's not found anywhere in the source material. Finally, double Oscar nominee Viola Davis gets to stand around looking sharp in her military attire while contributing little else. The film's biggest star is Harrison Ford and his take on Graff (who would have been more appropriately named Gruff) is akin to what might expect from a war-weary Han Solo who has lost his capacity for wisecracking. Meanwhile, his young co-star, Asa Butterfield, capably holds his own, adding his solid and believable performance here to an equally solid and believable performance in Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

The central themes of Card's book remain intact, chief of which relate to the ethics of defensive genocide. There are no easy answers to the questions posed by this issue and Ender's Game, to its credit, doesn't try to provide Hollywood-style facile resolutions. The movie never gets as dark as it might but neither does it ignore the implications. There's also an interesting side question about whether we act the same way during a simulation (when we know it's artificial) as in a real-life situation. When a commander knows his decisions have genuine life-and-death implications, does he issue orders with the same detachment as when he's playing a "game?" As slick entertainment goes, this one has enough of a brain to at least vocalize ideas about right and wrong, and the more that family-friendly popcorn fare indulges in city-destroying acts of violence, the more refreshing it is to have something that actually calls our attention to that fact.

Directed by:    Gavin Hood
Written by:    Screenplay by Gavin Hood, based on the book
 Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Starring:    Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld
Released:    11/01/13 (USA-wide)
Length:    114 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and
 thematic material.

ENDER'S GAME © 2013 Summit Entertainment
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