Movie review: Ender's Game

If you’re familiar with the nearly 30-year-old book upon which it’s based, it may be enough to know that “Ender’s Game” is very faithful to the source material, and it’s a treat to see it come to life.  The acting from Asa Butterfield as military cadet Ender Wiggin, and Harrison Ford as his grizzled commander Hyrum Graff, is excellent.  

Ford, in particular, does some of the best work of his epic career.  He’s been iconic a few times, which is more than most actors can hope for, but here he’s really acting: powerful, nuanced, and more than a little scary.  He got inside this character, and brings the audience every bright and dark thing he found.  He hasn’t seemed this absorbed and engaged with a film in quite a while.  You won’t see a shred of Indiana Jones or Han Solo here, and if you grew up with those characters, you might find that more than a little disturbing.  Those who go into the movie without knowing the story will find a repeat viewing helpful to really appreciate what Ford has accomplished here.

It says much about Butterfield’s performance that the young star can keep up with Harrison Ford.  They have great chemistry together, and it doesn’t fit neatly into traditional mentor/student or surrogate father/son templates.  Ender is simple and easy to understand in some ways – you can see where a lifetime of being menaced by his frightening brother Peter, loved by his boundlessly compassionate sister Valentine, and living in the shadow of Armageddon with the rest of humanity have shaped him.  He’s a genius who never stops thinking outside the box; a strategist whose winning plays are so astounding that his opponents can only splutter helplessly about cheating; and a small boy who learned to handle bullies by making sure they’ll never bother him again, winning one fight in a big way so he doesn’t have to keep fighting over and over again.  He’s lovable, sympathetic, and terrifying.  

Ender’s attitude toward bullies brings him to the attention of Earth’s military forces, who are desperately searching for someone like him.  At some point in the near future, humanity has a devastating encounter with an advanced alien race called the Formics.  Imagine a colony of enraged fire ants, then imagine them with starships that launch boiling clouds of space fighters.  Millions die during the first aborted invasion.  Decades pass, humanity develops its own starfleet, and the day is rapidly approaching when the Formics will return to finish the job.  Their hive mind and lightning-fast reaction times make them tough to beat – only children can process information and adapt quickly enough to have a chance.  

Ender Wiggin is part of a group of gifted children brought into orbit for training at a fantastic Battle School, where it is hoped a team of officers capable of defeating the Formics might be trained.  It soon becomes apparent that Ender is an unparalleled strategic genius, perhaps the best who ever lived, and his desperate commanders will do anything to prepare him for the war ahead.

To say more about the plot would be the sort of criminal offense that gets you “iced” out of Battle School.  Suffice it to say there’s a wee bit of sci-fi “Hogwart’s in space” to the tale of Ender’s training, and the film is rather clever about manipulating audience expectations for that now-common genre.  Orson Scott Card wrote this book long ago, but director Gavin Hood knows the movie landscape of 2013, and is well aware of what an audience anticipates when it sees a young boy in a fantastic school setting on a film poster.  His strategy involves turning these expectations against you.  Ender would approve.

Some material had to be trimmed from the book to make the movie work.  The choices were wisely made.  Basically, Ender and his friends are made a little older, their time at Battle School is compressed, and nearly everything Card wrote about the futuristic Earth is dropped, aside from a very brief, rather cryptic reference to the fact that having a third child is unusual.  Ender’s brother and sister, fascinating characters in the novel and its sequels, are reduced to cameos.  That makes sense, because their plotline would have bloated the film and been somewhat less amenable to cinematic interpretation, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit melancholy at the loss, because Card predicted the art of blogging with their storyline.  Bloggers who take over the world, no less.  Here’s a tip of the keyboard to you, Peter and Valentine Wiggin.

A few other characters and plotlines are consolidated, which makes the supporting cast fade into the background a bit, despite fine work from actors young and old.  Even if the movie was three hours long, they wouldn’t have stood a chance against the incandescence of Butterfield and Ford, as a seemingly simple tale of matriculation at an awesome fantasy school deepens into something far more challenging.  Ender plays many different games, on fields ranging from a nifty super-iPad to a zero-gravity laser-tag chamber that is the stuff of boyhood dreams.  The lessons he learns about compassion, and the price of victory, will haunt you long after the movie is over.