I read Ender’s Game when I was twelve years old, and unlike a lot of people, it didn’t move me the way it clearly intended to. I enjoyed it just fine and realized even then that it was about more than teenage wish fulfillment. Orson Scott Card presented a treatise on the ethics of leadership disguised as a sci-fi thriller, and actually managed to think the equation through instead of just pounding us over the head with his points. (And let me state quickly for the record that I find his views on homosexuality vile, that none of them are reflected in this movie, and that I’m not inclined to punish the latter for the former.) Ender’s Game does an adept job of balancing that against the need for spectacle, action and straightforward entertainment: no small feat considering that the bulk of the film consists of training without apparent consequence and a lot of interior moral debate. But does it reach as far as it clearly wants to? I’m not quite sure that it does.
I’ll return to that in a minute. For now, it’s enough to say that director Gavin Hood successfully navigates some very treacherous waters to find that sweet spot between crowd-pleasing entertainment and more substantive intellectual discourse. It’s doubly impressive considering the leaps we need to make in order for this scenario to work. In the film’s future, humanity has barely beaten back an alien invasion and now depends on children to take the battle to the enemy. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one of numerous gifted young people selected to command a fleet of starships against the inhuman Formics. We need to accept that kids are our only option in this scenario, which requires some indulgence on our part to work.
On the other hand, that’s pretty vital to some Ender’s Game other important points. The bulk of the story consists of Ender’s training and preparation for the inevitable fight, influenced by the fact that the commander in charge of it all (Harrison Ford) believes that the boy is destined for great things, and wants to toughen him up in order to make him strong. So he’s subjected to a kind of benign neglect, harassed by bullies of all stripes and left to his own devices to figure out a solution to his problems. He does so in spectacular fashion most of the time. A keen mind and natural instinct for tactics lets him discover new ways to vanquish the little thugs around him, while simultaneously pondering the ethical implications of what he does. In the process, he emerges as the natural leader that Ford’s Colonel Graff believes him to be. Ender’s Game never cheats with those details, and reaps considerable rewards by showing us how he evolves, instead of just telling us.
The interior struggle matters more than the exterior one, which remains as devoid of drama as you’d expect a glorified series of video games to be. Credit Hood for making it all so visually engaging without losing Ender’s serious meditations on his role in life and the consequences of his actions. Ender’s Game works best as a lesson on how to deal with obstacles, on why bullying requires more than brute strength to defeat, and why you have to live with the decisions you have made. Hood gets ample help from his impressive young lead, along with other youthful actors like Hailee Steinfeld and Moises Arias. Ford, too, seems rejuvenated by the material: showing more life and energy than he has in years.
And yet on some level, the film doesn’t quite connect as profoundly as it wants to. At times we feel the lesson more than the story, as the moralizing takes precedent over the drama and strains our ability to connect to this character. Ender’s Game delivers the rich details of its central figure, but doesn’t link us to him with the emotional resonance we need. Instead, he’s like the scenarios he engages in: a hypothetical meditation designed to impart key information, not a human being that we need to care about.
Butterfield helps a great deal and Hood keeps the balls in the air far too often to harp on these shortcomings too much. Ender’s Game works extremely well on numerous levels, making an admirable contribution to a year that’s been pretty good for science fiction films already. But when the climax arrives and the inevitable wrinkle hits us in the face, we’re left too detached to feel the impact the way we need to. It’s not a story anymore, just a lecture delivered a little too heavy handedly and with a little too much earnestness to sink in. Granted, the lesson is well worth learning, and the remainder of Ender’s Game is as solid a work of filmmaking as you’ll find, but some of the implied profundity here just doesn’t quite pass muster. It’s a very good film. Just not quite as good as it wants to be and what it comes agonizing close to reaching before stumbling over its own good intentions.