It’s an odd week when you follow up a review of a movie about a homophobe—Jean-Marc Vallée’s excellent Dallas Buyers Club—with a review of a movie by a homophobe, or, rather, based on a best-selling book by a very prominent one. Before the release of Ender’s Game, an adaptation by writer-director Gavin Hood of the sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card, I knew of Card primarily as an anti-gay-marriage crusader and vocal right-wing crank. In a column from last spring that falls at the exact midpoint between sci-fi thought experiment and paranoid screed, Card compares President Obama to Hitler and envisions him amassing an army of “Brown Shirts—thugs who will do his bidding without any reference to law.” Where will this paramilitary force be recruited? Among “young out-of-work urban men,” of course.
Thankfully, none of that ideological ugliness finds its way into the film version of Ender’s Game. Nonetheless, this effects-heavy but still slight-seeming movie has a strangely tractlike quality: It seems to be intending some lesson or moral that, as a nonreader of the book, I never quite got. Like After Earth—another recent movie about a barely-adolescent boy forced to grow up fast on a dangerous voyage to outer space—Ender’s Game unfolds in an airless, abstracted world that seems to have little relation to our own.
It’s a shame, because Ender’s Game’s central premise—that in the future, after a catastrophic planetary invasion by antlike aliens known as Formics, Earth’s leaders will use children to lead the super-high-tech counterattack because of their superior brain plasticity and intuition—is an idea that’s full of possibilities. First of all, there’s the dystopic fantasy, common to the Hunger Games series, of a future where the young people our culture now (at least nominally) shelters from harm have become both its cannon fodder and its media celebrities. And then there’s the potential for satire in the film’s portrait of a hyper-militarized culture of heroism—or even, perhaps, a Matrix-esque religious allegory embedded in its story about a young boy, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield of Hugo) whom the head of the kid-training unit of the armed forces, Col. Graff (Harrison Ford), believes to be, in essence, the One.
Ender’s promise as a supreme military commander isn’t derived solely from his badass first name. He’s a rare-in-the-future third child—the authorities made an exception for his birth because his siblings were near perfect genetic matches for the profile of the ideal leader. And while he’s physically small—Butterfield is 16, but looks more like 12—Ender is both a brilliant tactician and, when pushed to the limit, a ruthless opponent. It’s after he puts down a bully with such extreme prejudice the kid nearly dies that Col. Graff pulls him out of school—and off planet Earth—to join an elite training camp on a space station.
The boot-camp training sequences that make up the bulk of the rest of the movie have their moments—particularly those having to do with the friendship that develops between Ender and a female fellow recruit, Petra (Hailee Steinfeld). Petra takes it upon herself to familiarize Ender with the rules of both zero-gravity combat and inter-adolescent social politics—as you can imagine, the latter is significantly trickier. As Ender moves rapidly up the ranks, he comes to be resented and bullied by his teenage commander Bonzo (played by Moisés Arias, an actor so tiny he makes the not-at-all-strapping Butterfield look huge, creating a comic effect I’m not sure was intended in this studiedly serious movie). There’s a nice scene in which Ender and Petra visit the gravity-free chamber of the space station at night for some free-floating target practice, but thanks to this PG-13 film’s aggressive squeaky-cleanness, we don’t even get the fun of a zero-gravity kiss.
“This is basic rocket science, people,” an impatient professor tells her unresponsive class in one of their early battle simulations. But as battle school wears on, the simulations grow ever more complex, and the tablet-based “mind games” Ender plays as part of his special training grow ever trippier. (The sequences in which we enter into these creepy animated games from Ender’s point of view are among the movie’s best.) Viola Davis appears as a lower-ranking battle-school officer who tries in vain to convince Ford’s gruff honcho to incorporate the faintest tinge of compassion into their training protocols, but both Ford and the movie treat her as window dressing. Sir Ben Kingsley also pops up for a short and rather silly cameo as a legendary Formic-destroyer with a face covered in Maori tattoos. The ending aspires to a moral ponderousness that the rest of the movie can’t quite support (I will say no more for fear of spoiling a fairly guessable, but not unclever, final twist).
Gay activist groups have proposed a boycott of Ender’s Game, to which Card (who has a producer’s credit) has responded that he won’t personally profit from the film, having received a flat fee for the rights long ago. (Anyway, Card already made his fortune from the 1985 best-seller, in which the insectoid invaders are referred to straight-up as “Buggers.”) I can understand wanting to skip Ender’s Game as a matter of moral principle, but you can also feel free to blow it off just because it’s not that good.