Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel, long considered a classic of the Sci-Fi genre, reaches the big screen after considerable delay and PR turmoil. The result is a nuanced portrait of a planetary society driven to extremes by fear, and a generation of youth shaped into aggressive child soldiers in the name of securing a lasting peace.
"Ender's Game" begins fifty years after Earth repulsed an alien species known as the Formics -- insectoid creatures (called "Buggers" in Card's novel; the slur is never used in the movie) desperate for water and for living space. Earth was to be their new colony, but the brilliant tactics of a fighter pilot named Mazer Rackham (Ben Kinglsey) narrowly won the day and drove the invaders away.
Earth has unified in the face of the Formics threat, building a space-faring war fleet and establishing outposts on distant planets in order to keep close watch on the inscrutable aliens. Fearing a renewed attempt at conquest, the powers that be have created a corps of elite fighters, drawn from humanity's most promising children: Intelligent, aggressive, intuitive fighters who will prove the last, and best, line of defense in case of renewed hostilities.
Among them is a young fellow named Andrew Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, who impressed as the titular character in "Hugo"). Ender seems like a poor prospect for a soldier: He's anxious, slight, and something of an outcast. But he does possess a talent for strategic thinking and, when push comes to literal shove, a mean streak that bears more than a little resemblance to his brother Peter's (Jimmy Pinchak) tendency toward sadism and violence.
That rough edge is exactly what Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) is looking for in the next great military leader. With premeditated exactness that goes beyond mere cruelty and touches on calculating psychological abuse, Graff sets about shaping Ender into the sort of leader he thinks will win the war: Self-sufficient, merciless, and willing to resort to tactics of complete annihilation. Graff's colleague Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis), a psychologist, is concerned for Ender's well being -- but the numbers game comes down to a stark choice: Sacrifice Ender, and kids like him, or risk extinction at the hands (or, rather, the pincers) of the Formics.
The recipe for Ender's particular personality profile includes a willingness to push back at authority, however, and he's not entirely willing to allow Graff, or anyone else, to have their way with him. Strategic thinking is useful on the battlefield of politics as well as staging grounds for interstellar conflict, and in the movie's middle section Ender, with increasing confidence, displays a genius for repositioning people so that enemies become allies and skeptics are transformed into supporters. Butterfield does a magnificent job at portraying this, even though the screenplay, by director Gavin Hood, underscores Ender's ability for empathy and his youthful vulnerability a little too much: There are one or two tearful scenes too many, and poor Butterfield spends so much time with reddened eyes that you feel sorrier for the actor (what did they do to him, anyway?) than for the character, whose torments and missteps never seem to deter him all that much.
Well, at least until the movie enters its third part, where Ender nearly kills a classmate (does kill him, in the book) and learns to embrace the savage force of his inventive tactical brilliance. All of this leads up here, as in the book, to a sudden, devastating turn in which Ender realizes that, as good as he is at the sorts of games one must play to advance in the military and defeat one's foes, he has himself been a pawn in a much larger game. Hood's screenplay refuses to soften the source material's harder contours, making this an uncomfortable film in some ways, but one that demands the sort of serious thought that classic Sci-Fi --or enduring work of any genre -- requires.
With some understandable exceptions (this is a movie, after all, and not a book), Hood's film remains remarkably faithful to Card's novel. In this, the skeptics and the resentful might find some poetic justice: Ender, intended by Graff to be isolated and alienated, finds ways to draw his fellow cadets together and adapts their ideas in order to improve his own; he is all about making the most of the human resources at his command, and he's not concerned with questions of who is rich or poor, male or female, or, presumably (though the film steers well clear of this topic), who is gay or straight. The only inequality here is that of the chain of command; otherwise, those who participate are also those who partake.
In this way, Card is implicitly hoisted on his own petard: The scathingly homophobic writer's own most famous creation would shake his head in disappointment at Card's inability to include gay people of talent and devotion under the full broad canvas of humanity's socio-political tent.
To judge the film on its own merits is to find it a success, although it doesn't escape the overall sense of the derivative and the formulaic that plagued the novel. Hood's adaptation works not only in narrative terms, with a brisk, efficient mix of pacing, character development, and action, but also in the realm of design. This is a universe with little glamor, and more than a trace of existential dread; as such, the film's visual contrasts are fully of a piece with its tone. Jewel like fighter ships streak across the void of deep space; organically shaped, sinister-looking alien architecture melds with human environments dominated by straight lines and clean angles. The uniforms look as though they had been looted from the storage lockers that contain old "Babylon 5" and "Star Trek: Voyager" kits, but the production design as a whole makes a gratifying kind of sense -- the technology we see here looks both utilitarian and stunted, as though we'd been rushed far too quickly into a future of galactic traverse (as, of course, is true in the story's context).
If the military leaders of the book and film seem literally crazed with fear and loathing, well, it might justifiably be seen as a regrettable and darkly humorous reflection on their inventor. But in truth, what Card has wrought stands up to the demands of the cinema screen, and the talents of those associated with the film -- Hood, cinematographer Donald McAlpine, composer Steve Jablonsky, and the army of wizards who give the film visual grandeur -- ensure that as pure filmed entertainment with an incisive, inquisitive moral edge, "Ender's Game" more than earns its keep.