For a scathing critique of wartime morality, “Ender’s Game” offers some of the coolest simulations of videogame warfare ever.
Directed by Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) from his own adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name, it sacrifices none of the source material’s complexity in chronicling the eponymous hero’s journey from trainee to commander of Earth’s armies. In doing so, he’s successfully crafted an allegorical film designed to attract large numbers of kids — even if many of them will miss the intricacies of its underlying message.
Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) plays Ender Wiggin, a military trainee in a futuristic society where adults enlist children as the first line of defense against an imminent alien invasion. Chosen by Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) for Battle School because of his penchant for strategic thinking, Ender quickly rises through the ranks, but not without creating a few enemies and generally alienating himself from the others.
After proving himself in the academy’s zero-gravity war simulator, Ender is promoted to Command School and put through rigorous training to learn how to control entire armies in combat situations. But as the stakes for his simulations intensify, he begins to question whether the complete and total destruction of his enemies – even if it’s to eliminate future conflicts – is truly the best strategy that he can use.
Although it utilizes the same hero’s-journey boilerplate that provided the foundation for everything from “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter,” “Ender’s Game” seems to come by it honestly, at least insofar as Ender goes through real tribulations, physical and philosophical, to earn his spot as “The One.”
Ostracized for being the third kid in a world that mandates two per family, he embodies the balance between his brother Peter’s aggression and sister Valentine’s compassion, and Graff repeatedly tests not only his body, but his problem-solving abilities, and perhaps most importantly, his resolve in the face of adversity.
Thanks to Hood’s sophisticated adaptation of Card’s source material, there’s much topically to appreciate from an adult perspective, not the least of which being the questionable morality of a pre-emptive military strike. But like a disillusioned adolescent discovering that his parents lie, Ender experiences a powerful epiphany when he discovers that his superiors’ efforts to protect him from the repercussions of his actions have made him blind to the moral and emotional weight of his sacrifice-for-the-common-good strategies.
Reunited with cinematographer Don McAlpine, with whom he collaborated on “Origins,” Hood seems more confident tackling this big-budget opus than his previous one, skillfully navigating his character through the grown-up complexities of training exercises which outwardly seem like child’s play. That said, those deeper themes occasionally make the film feel like a bit of a joyless slog, and even at two packed hours, some of the mythology of this kid-based, futuristic world feels rushed.
As a young man placed in charge of responsibilities much bigger than himself, Butterfield struggles with his character’s destiny about as well as a child actor can, lending him the right notes of naiveté when necessary without undermining his believability as the most formidable military mind in the seventh grade.
Meanwhile, Ford offers a perfect foil in Graff (more like gruff!) for Ender’s developing maturity, applying the stick and the carrot in equal measures to simultaneously build confidence and nurture his leadership skills.
Bolstered by solid performances and a clean, elegant visual style, Hood ultimately delivers a film that actually earns the distinction of being for audiences of all ages.
But he accomplishes this insurmountable task not by successfully tapping into his adult viewers’ inner children but by appealing to children’s inner adults — not quite asking them to grow up, but just begin to consider the more complicated world that lurks out on the horizon.
Ultimately as much a polemic as tentpole entertainment, “Ender’s Game” is a rare example of filmmaking with a scalpel at a scale that usually demands a hatchet.