Sci-fi war film will make you think … if, that is, you’ve never thought before.
Glossy, pretty and bereft of a single scrap of intelligence, Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game plays out as young tactical genius Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is hyper-accelerated through command training (in a future where insect invaders have already killed “tens of millions” in an invasion 50 years before the film’s events) so he might fight, and win, the next round. It’s intended as a parable about war. But creating or enjoying a fable about war is like creating or enjoying a limerick about how you want a divorce; technically possible, but when you consider the circumstances, probably not the best way to address the topic at hand. There’s one other challenge, as well, in that since the book’s release in 1985, Card’s future of drone fighters with detached leaders ordering their troops and weapons to kill from office chairs became our past sometime about 1991. The future, as they say, ain’t what it used to be.
Written by Orson Scott Card — a writer of futuristic science fiction, nowadays best known for his medieval personal beliefs — Ender’s Game is, essentially, ludicrous, as if someone thought the big problem with great, real war films like Paths of Glory or A Bridge Too Far was that they didn’t star enough pre-teen kids and pause for a few games of Space Quidditch. Written by Hood himself, the Ender’s Game script commits not just occasional mistakes but in some cases, deliberate evasions to hide bad storytelling. Many of these are from Card’s book, but some are Hood’s, and they are deliberate; the fact that you have no idea about how much time passes between the start of the action and the end of the film — Months? Weeks? Years? — is not a slight error in presentation, but, instead, a deliberate cheat designed to hide information that an audience member a) will already know if they’ve read the book and b) can figure out for themselves if they own anything as complicated as, let us say, a wrist watch.
Asa Butterfield (of Hugo) is fine as Ender; much like James Cameron had to find a 14-year-old Valley version of Alexander the Great for Terminator 2, Hood found a young actor who can also convey a sense of who he’s going to be. The supporting cast of adults, each saddled with one-word attributes to play in the place of a character, are also fine. Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff is gruff. Viola Davis’ military psychiatrist is concerned. Ben Kingsley is enigmatic. They’re one-note characters, and the notes don’t necessarily become a harmony. The other kids — including Moises Arias and Hailee Steinfeld — are also good within the straightjacket of the script.
And even as science fiction, Ender’s Game is criminally stupid. The tactics employed are a mix of world War II-style tactics transplanted, idiotically, to space, with no understanding of gravity or physics or the kinds of attacks true space warfare would involve; it’s as if someone showed you a World War II film where the Normandy Landings were done in canoes by soldiers with bows and spears. (For better examples, see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Footfall or The Fifth Wave, all of which understand that fighting a war at interstellar distances turns every planet into the bottom of a well during a rock-throwing fight.) One big dramatic moment of “genius” is lifted whole and entire from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
But the biggest problem with Ender’s Game is not that it is dumb as a box of rocks about war; it assumes we are, too. Starship Troopers was dumb, but brilliantly so; it turned war into satire. Ender’s Game just turns war into a joke. Ender’s waging war against enemies he’ll never see, come face-to-face with, or even try to understand. But as an American citizen I’ve paid tax dollars to help kill approximately 165,000 civilians in the second Gulf War — a war begun to stop a WMD threat that was not even there. And I’ve also helped pay for 317 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2008 that have killed anywhere from 27 (the Pakistani government’s estimate) to 300 (as estimated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) civilians while killing “Islamic Militants,” with young men and women controlling their attacks from screens oceans away from the blood, fire and dying that they unleash. In the production-designed future of Ender’s Game, such concerns and moral issues are calls for contemplation and doubt; in our less IMAX-ready present, they’re just background noise between Kardashians spawning and Sports playoffs. Ender’s Game shows us — and shows us rather clumsily — a high-tech future where children go to war as soldiers to save us all. That would work if most of us, as civilians and taxpayers, weren’t children about war already.