Perhaps too easily pigeon-holed as Harry Potter in space, Ender’s Game comes at a time where any ‘Young Adult’ novel on the planet is getting the movie treatment. Based on Orson Scott Card’s novel, originally published in 1977, Ender’s Game has become ‘suggested’ reading for the United States Marine Corps thanks to its pragmatic approach to first knowing and then wiping out your enemy. That is uses kids as soldiers opens up an even bigger can of worms.
Fifty years from now humanity is almost entirely wiped-out by an alien species known as the Formics. Realising that only children have the fearless and decisive nature, not to mention a lack of moral compass, to combat the Formics in battle the International Military, led by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) set about finding the smartest kids to lead the fight back. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a tactical savant, able to outthink his opponents in any situation but suffering from issues of self-doubt. Recruited into an elite battle school Ender finds himself pitted against the best young soldiers humanity has to offer in an attempt to strategies an attack to wipe out the enemy once and for all.
Rightly distancing itself from Scott Card’s original homophobic text (the villains are originally called Buggers just one of Scott Card’s concepts that is jettisoned here), Ender’s Game has more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket than it does with any boy wizard. Pushed to breaking point and manipulated by their adult superior officers, these soldiers are nothing more than pawns in a violent conflict. But Ender is different, tapped into the mind games of his instructors in a very literal manner he’s always one step ahead, which only goes to make him the more potent and potentially deadly weapon.
While raising interesting issues and successfully engaging with a conflicted character Ender’s Game also creates a fascinating world. Based mostly aboard the training facility director Gavin Hood brings a visual coldness to the world, even the vibrant uniforms are seemingly stilted. In doing so there’s a calculation into the propaganda at the centre of the film. It allows Hood to build upon a secret that both the audience and Ender are aware of but always one step behind.
The issues arise at the film’s refusal to truly engage with the enemy, keeping the Formic on the periphery rather than allowing us to see them as a genuine threat. This is partly due to the nature behind the mystery but it means that much of the ‘Game’ feels like just that, a game that we’re watching someone else play rather than being part of.
It’s always nice to see Harrison Ford back in the genre of Sci-fi, one that has served him well in the past. Here he brings that now famous gruff personality to Ender’s world, both a mentor and master manipulator he treads the line between friend and foe effectively. Butterfield meanwhile continues to grow as a solid actor, carrying the film on his young shoulders with both confidence and a moral compass that successfully guides his troops and story.
Thematically and visually interesting with a fresh approach for a film of this nature, Ender’s Game has more grown-up ideas than most young adult stories care to muster.