In 1985, Orson Scott Card published “Ender’s Game,” an expansion on a short story he’d published in “Analog Science Fiction and Fact” magazine in 1977. The novel was a success, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel and being named to the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels. It’s also become part of the U.S. Marine Corps Professional Reading list for its “lessons in training methodology, leadership and ethics.” Now the novel has been adapted for the big screen.
Ender’s Game takes place years after an invasion of earth by the Formics, a bug-like race. That invasion was defeated by the selfless act of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), but earth’s International Military knows that the Formics will be back. They create a series of schools for gifted children, whom they find can master the gaming skills needed to fight the Formics easier than adults.
The commander of the training, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), has his eye on a cadet with high skills. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a third child whose older siblings Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin) have already washed out of the school, Valentine for being too sensitive, Peter for being too violent. Graff’s assistant, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) is concerned about Ender’s mental state, but they go ahead with a final test: expelling him from the program and sending him back to his family. While humbled and humiliated, Ender manages to maintain his dignity while apparently losing. After a short time, Graff and Anderson arrive to take Ender to Battle School.
The Battle School is located on a space station, where combat simulations can be done in zero gravity. From the start, Graff puts Ender at odds with his fellow trainees, to challenge Ender to develop leadership skills. Ender comes up against Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie), a drill instructor who’s the spiritual descendant of Sgt. Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman, but he also meets Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), a more experienced cadet who helps train him.
The adaptation of the novel by Gavin Hood, who also directed the film, edits out some of the broad scale of the book to focus on the elemental story. Hood had begun his career as an actor, appearing in mostly forgettable films, but then switched to writing and directing. He did the South African film Tsotsi, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2006 awards. His first big budget Hollywood film was the poorly received X-Men Origins: Wolverine, though he didn’t write the script for that mess. With Ender’s Game he has full control, and it pays off.
Asa Butterfield is the spiritual child of Paul Newman, not just with his ice blue eyes but with his skill at letting his thoughts flow out of them to the audience. It’s not easy to perform a role that is essentially a treatise on leadership, but Butterfield pulls it off. Harrison Ford’s craggy visage is a perfect counterpoint to Butterfield’s youth, and they capture the complex interrelationship between Graff and Ender. Moises Arias delivers an impressive performance as Bonzo Madrid, the Salamander Platoon leader to who Ender is assigned. Bonzo is a tightly-wound martinet, and the performance could have veered into comedic parody, but Arias walks a fine line to make him both flawed and threatening.
There have been negatives surrounding the production. Orson Scott Card was active with a group fighting marriage equality in several states, which has led to a backlash against the film. The book has also had its critics who object to its justification of violence, some even comparing Ender to Hitler. However, the story’s central twist puts the lie to that.
Science fiction has always been a way to view today’s world. The original novel was prescient, predicting drone warfare as well as computer-simulation gaming for training for battle, especially since it was written during the age of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. In the movie, one can easily see why the Marines value the story for leadership training. But the movie goes beyond that, to challenge attitudes and assumptions about wars in a way that resonates in our current world. This is a movie worth seeing and then discussing.