dir. Gavin Hood
Release Date: Jan 01, 70
The release of the highly anticipated Ender’s Game has been largely clouded by its creator’s personal politics, as Orson Scott Card’s anti-gay views have dominated press coverage up until the film’s release. The biggest drawback of the resulting movie is, in fact, the undertones of its source material — but not in the way you might think. Ender’s Game has bigger problems than the gays. At times, director Gavin Hood’s tween Star Wars epic plays like Objectivism For Kids, an Ayn Rand fantasy the whole family can enjoy. The story is about a brilliant young ubermensch who overcomes a militaristic hierarchy to become the noble fascist he was born to be, and the lesson is hard to swallow.
However, credit goes to Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) and his young cast for making Ender’s Game a thrill ride more entertaining than the material often deserves. Hood handles the film with an effortlessly stylish panache that give the proceedings a cold, almost Kubrickian beauty. As Ender Wiggin, Hugo’s Asa Butterfield makes an ideal canvass for Hood’s film, an actor whose punishingly blank presence matches the starkness of Cardian ideology. Ender’s Game plays like a portrait of the dictator as a young man, as Ender is recruited into a military enterprise hell-bent on genocide. A race of alien wasps attempted to colonize earth fifty years before the film takes place, and Ender is one of a team of young people recruited to strike back.
The entire movie thinks in ideology, less interested in people as characters than as concepts, and the bluntness of its allegory sometimes gets in the way of telling an actual story. Ender’s brother and sister were both former recruits in the enterprise, but each failed for different reasons. One was too violent, the other too empathetic. Ender’s job is to find the balance, and the journey lacks the satirical bite of Starship Troopers. However, as Ender climbs the ranks of the military, you can’t help but be perversely fascinated by the enterprise. The story is compulsively watchable and the action sequences gorgeously staged, finding a balance between grace and brutality that Gary Ross’ Hunger Games could have used. After the failure that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Gavin Hood gets action right.
Although Butterfield and co-star Hallee Steinfeld do a great job of anchoring the film, less successful are the veteran members of its cast, who fight to make what impression they can with what little screen time they are offered. Oscar nominee Viola Davis is wasted in the role of a captain who conscientiously objects to the child violence in which the military is trading. While technically perfect for the role, Harrison Ford is sadly one-note as an idealistic officer who would rather go down with the ship than abort the mission. The problem with Ford is that he doesn’t have to give an actual performance. All he offers is a vehicle by which to argue principles, rather than giving any sense of a person underneath the principles. At times, his performance verges on being comical in the monomania of its thematic precision.
Ender’s Game is a film I’m of many minds about, and I wonder if the ending is as clear of a rebuke as Card and Hood want it to be, but if anything, I admire the courage of its convictions. While many preteen franchises treat their audience like mouth-breathing sycophants, here is a kid’s movie with ideas and passion. It might be libertarian hokum, but it gives kids something to chew on other than werewolves and sexy abstinence. When the film ended, I found myself thinking about the issues it presents, even if I morally couldn’t agree with what Card is getting at. However, it’s a film that I would love to see its core audience see and debate, whether it’s simply a critique of our Military Industrial Complex or yet another dangerous idea.
If anything, at least Ender’s Game trusts its young audience enough to follow along without spelling it out for them, letting them do some of the thinking. In Hollywood, that’s a minor miracle.