Ender’s Game review: big ideas, small heart

Ender's Game yellow light Asa Butterfield Hailee Steinfeld

My soul was never stirred. My spirit did not soar. My intellect did twitch a bit in ways that made my heart ache disagreeably, however.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a big science fiction geek

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The book is better.

I haven’t even read the book, and I know this must be the case, because there’s little here that can account for how highly fans rate the 1985 novel. For the book and its preteen hero, Ender Wiggin, to be as beloved as they are, there’s gotta be some heart lurking in there somewhere. My soul, alas, was never stirred by this film adaptation. My spirit did not soar. My intellect twitched a bit in ways that made my heart ache disagreeably, however. This Ender’s Game — from writer-director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition) — engages the mind, in some ways that are uncomfortable and yet never intriguingly so, but it does not engage the heart.

I might say that that odd omission could be intentional, because the Big SF Ideas of this strange mashup of Starship Troopers and Harry Potter — gifted kids go to fascist military school! — are ones that seem positive only if your heart is made of stone. (Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld will love this flick; it’s a gung-ho endorsement of their decision to invade Iraq.) Decades after Earth repelled an invasion by insectile aliens who killed tens of millions of humans, the planet is preparing for another invasion by the “Formics” that may or may not come by training all kids in tactics and strategy in the hopes of finding a new “Julius Caesar or a Napoleon” who will win the war decisively. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield: Hugo (2011), Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang), aged up from the book to around 14 years old, is plucked from his regular school to attend the orbiting Battle School, because Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford: Cowboys & Aliens, Extraordinary Measures) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis: Prisoners, Beautiful Creatures), who run the place, think he could be the legendary-scale genius they’re looking for.

And what makes Ender stand out? He accidentally stumbled upon the strategy Earth’s leaders believe is needed to defeat the Formics: preemptive assholery on a personal level and preemptive war on a societal one. It’s prison rules as a cultural philosophy: gotta beat up the biggest badass in the yard in order to kill off in him the idea of even thinking about beating you up in the future.

Ender’s Game is all might-makes-right and justification for violence; there has apparently been no attempt to even communicate with the Formics, for one thing, never mind a go at a diplomatic solution with the aliens, and apparently everyone is okay with that. Ender himself articulates it neatly at one point: “Follow the rules, you lose; chose violence, you win.” What just barely saves the movie as something worth a look for kids (and probably only kids; more on that in a moment) is that Ender does eventually rebel against the attitudes that his manipulative education — okay, sure, let’s call is brainwashing — has inculcated in him. This is far more science fiction of ideas than of action, and it demands discussion of its ideas, if in a weak sort of way, as if it doesn’t want you to question them too much. Ender’s turnaround injects only some minor quibbling about the film’s larger repulsive ideas, and in a way that barely rejects them.

But here’s another problem with Ender’s Game… and with Ender himself. Ender’s about-face is possible because, we’re told, he has a special sort of empathy with his enemies that helps him to understand and even love them. But we never see how this is possible, such as with the many bullies he faces in his various schools, and we certainly see nothing that would explain the empathy he comes to have with the Formics. A certain connection between Ender and the aliens jumps out at the end as an almost mystical thing that is entirely at odds with the film’s hard-science approach up to that point. Author Orson Scott Card has said that he considers his novel to be unfilmable (even though this adaptation does have his blessing), “because everything takes place in Ender’s head.” Way too much of what is inside Ender’s head is missing in the film for the very dramatic ending to be plausible.

And why is this version, at least, of Ender’s Game probably best suited to kids? For one, Ender’s tactics and strategies that amaze his elders don’t seem terribly ingenious. I was stunned, in fact, that all the adults here are stunned by how Ender utilizes a new weapon in a battle scenario. Because how can no one else have seen his use as a possibility? How can the people who designed the weapon not have had this in mind? It was the first thing I thought of when we got the infodump explaining what the new weapon is capable of, particularly because it fits in so perfectly with the total-war philosophy of Earth’s leadership. Also too: While it’s commendable for the film to play around with zero-g ideas — like how there’s no up or down in space — and it’s smart of Ender to have figured this out even on his first trip off the planet, it seems kinda ridiculous that the Formics appear not to have hit upon this fact. I suspect adult fans of SF will find much of what goes on here, SFwise, to be rather simplistic, even while it pretends not to be, just as adult fans of drama won’t find much nuance, even when it’s desperately needed.

Watch Ender’s Game with a kid… and talk about it afterward. Unless you’re cool with an endorsement of preemptive violence as a way of life.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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