I haven’t read Ender’s Game. I missed the boat as a teenager, and by the time I’d heard there was a film in production, I was too old to read young adult science fiction on the train without feeling great and profound shame. Then it turned out that author Orson Scott Card is a militant homophobe. Unfortunately, children’s science fiction by unrepentant bigots tends to figure quite lowly on my reading list, so I went into the cinema blind. What I found was an odd film: a cold and emotionally distant war flick rendered as a series of dizzying set-pieces punctuated by some of the drabbest onscreen performances I’ve seen in quite some time.
The film takes place years after the unsuccessful invasion of Earth by a swarm of bug-aliens, who laid waste to cities and killed millions of people. Earth has collectively decided to defend ourselves from future attacks by training children as high-tech military commanders. I’m sure the novel provides explanation as to why this is a good idea, but the film does not. Besides a single line of throwaway dialogue, the entire film predicates itself on the idea that kids are just better at war. Okay.
The focus is on the ludicrously named Ender Wiggin (played by Asa Butterfield of Hugo), a particularly prodigious student who ascends through the ranks of military school – alongside a number of other students – under the tutelage of a stoic colonel (Harrison Ford) with the goal of leading a military force of drones against the alien threat. Got it? Good. The plot is fun popcorn fare, but the execution is anything but. The film is utterly joyless, and shambles along the axis of a poorly explicated narrative with the energy of a bored zombie. Plot happens, followed by exquisitely rendered and entirely mechanical set-pieces, then more plot happens. There’s no impetus to it. The final climax happens, and you only know it happened because the characters tell you it did.
The performances are mostly dull. Someone should check on Harrison Ford – it’s quite possible that he died ten years ago and no one has told him yet. He grumbles and shouts his way through dead-end dialogue and half-formed philosophical musings in a way that is both sad and uncomfortable in equal measure. There are two exceptions to the greyness: Butterfield himself and his onscreen sister Valentine, played by Abigail Breslin.
Butterfield plays Wiggin as a distant and somewhat unlikeable lead, a child that has been broken down by both a loveless home life and the military-industrial complex to the point of total emotional deadening. It’s ballsy to play a child character in a film like this so emptily, and Butterfield does quite well. Breslin is the only character with any heart or onscreen energy, which is not unexpected. She is a national treasure. Oh, and Ben Kingsley, who plays a grizzled war veteran, does a solid Kiwi accent. The more you know.
Ender’s Game certainly has something to say – there’s obvious parallels drawn between the video game-ness of the space wargames that Ender commands and the drone warfare of the United States, but there’s not a huge amount of critique to be found there. War is bad. Maybe we are the real bad guys. Everything here was already said and said better in Starship Troopers. Director Gavin Hood – of Academy Award-winning South African film Tsotsi – clearly has an eye for visual imagery and political subtext, but this feels like a studio film: stripped of everything but raw plot and overwhelming visual effects.
As to how effective this film is as an adaption, I cannot possibly say. I have heard it follows the book quite closely both in plot and dialogue. As a film, it is a mess. It assumes too much audience pre-knowledge, and suffers narratively as a result. Its set-pieces, while dazzling, are overwhelming and emotionless. The film hangs in a tensionless space, and by the time the pace amps up, the audience may well have lost interest. There is a hint of a satisfying blockbuster in here. There are scattered elements that might have worked, given the right direction.
What we got fits the space setting perfectly: chilly, emotionless, dead.
Ender’s Game is released in Australia on December 5.