Asa Butterfield in 'Ender's Game'/Image © Summit Entertainment
When Orson Scott Card wrote Ender’s Game in 1985, he described forms of everyday technology, such as advanced video-game interfaces and internet forums, which challenged the imaginations of readers. Filmmakers were left scratching their heads. How do you effectively draw viewers into the future, when all you have are these crude, present-day tools?
A lot has changed since ’85, and on a purely technological scale this is as good an adaptation that a book like Ender’s Game is likely to ever get. That’s not damning with faint praise: every image in the film oozes with either money or talent — occasionally both. From young space cadets puking in zero-gravity to rocket ships blasting off over purple mountains majesty, Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game” leaves no stone in Card’s world unturned, presenting everything exactly as you’ve always imagined it — in some cases, even better. And it has to be better, because thanks to the book’s popularity, all its best concepts have been picked over by decades’ worth of other filmmakers.
If young people can manage to swallow just one more “chosen one” narrative pandering directly to their burgeoning senses of entitlement and exceptionalism, then there’s a lot about “Ender’s Game” that will intrigue them. Including the instances of violence, which are fewer than in the book but still joltingly delivered. However, fans of Katniss Everdeen’s revolutionary spirit may turn up their noses at Ender Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield with a sort of mechanical angst. Without access to his inner thoughts, we’re almost as puzzled by Ender’s motives as Colonel Graff (a rapidly melting Harrison Ford). And remember, there are no revolutionaries in Ender’s world: he succeeds by following orders, by playing the game.
On top of all that, there’s only so much you can cram into two hours. Most viewers could probably spend that much time in the film’s Battle Simulation Room without getting restless, watching rapt as Ender leads his team through a series of emotionally satisfying victories, filmed with balletic precision to a Clint Mansell-esque score. Sadly, there’s only time for two of these battles before we’re whisked off to the next abbreviated phase of Ender’s long journey; in a perfectly just world, “Ender’s Game” would swap running-times with “The Hobbit.”
See also the glorious scenes (again, abbreviated) in which Ender plays a video game that also serves as a tool of psychoanalysis. It’s amazing to realize that we’ve finally reached a point where it’s actually entertaining to watch a fictional character play a video game on a movie screen. The author and the film’s designers deserve equal credit for these moments, which introduce a vital dash of the irrational into this deceptively smooth, seamless future world. Without a glimpse of the psychic turmoil bubbling up between the widening cracks of Ender’s mind, it would be all too easy to forget what’s so terrible about the idea of using children as soldiers in the first place.
However, it’s not just our technology that has grown up since the book was written. Our culture has also matured as well, and ideas that were in step with their times — or even ahead of them — are bound to seem woefully dusty thirty years later. Here is where “Ender’s Game” stumbles: No matter how slick or imaginative its new packaging may be, its heart and soul and very bones are frozen in a more primitive time — and there’s not enough CGI spackle or A-List clout in the world to patch that over.
Here’s an example: literally every female character in this film (and there are plenty of them) is presented as the compassionate beta to a stern alpha-male authoritarian. There’s nothing wrong with the actual performances: Viola Davis steals scenes from Ford just by showing up; Abigail Breslin does her best with the thankless task of providing the same emotional ballast as Valentine did in the book, but in half as many scenes.
It’s the characters themselves, as written, that are problematic. No matter how strong or humane or intelligent these females may be, we’re shown that the survival of the human race depends on gruff, older white men to take charge, repress their ooky feelings, and cultivate a perfect warlike mentality among the young elite. It’s a tough job, and there are revolting consequences, but that’s just the way it’s gotta be.
Funny, when you put it that way the future sounds an awful lot like the past.