Ender’s Game follows the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) a child recruited by a military program that recruits super-smart kids with the intention of moulding them into mighty military leaders, something that is not a horrifying concept because there are bright colours and this is a kids film okay? Anyway, turns out Ender might just be the one gruff military Graff (Harrison Ford) has been looking for all these years. The right mixture of ruthless and intelligent, Ender races through the various programs at ‘Battle School’ and before long is recruited to lead the line against the Formics, a bug like alien race that seems to be readying an attempt to invade earth.
Ender’s Game isn’t really an ethical examination of war, as much as it a psychological examination of what it takes to be a great military mind. This is some The Art of War by Sun Tzu stuff, as Ender gradually corrects his various flaws, too much compassion, physical weakness, loneliness that might prevent him from becoming that perfect military tactician. The clue is in the title I suppose, and it is almost as if he is learning to be a chess grandmaster, rather than something where actual lives would be at stake. You might be asking why I’m talking about these kinds of concepts when this is a kids movie? Surely it’s just a Harry Potter-esque journey with a Sci-fi Military ran by Han Solo, with Battle School replacing Hogwarts. But that’s sort of the problem. The film is that, but at the same time it ventures into the above territory. The film is as interested in Ender’s emotional state as Harrison Ford’s character is, i.e. not really at all, and only in patches does he actually get to be a character rather than a cipher.
But at the same time, this didn’t feel like a dumb movie to me. Yes there was not much to speak of in terms of characterisation, even though the cast is filled to the brim with excellent child actors, but there was a reasonably considered psychological study going on here, of how a certain kind of person comes to be what the system needs them to be, at the expense of themselves. I liked that, and it’s an idea that seemed to grow as the film went on and in its ending, which sort of redeemed the thing for me. Oscar nominees Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld play under-written female teenagers, and Kings of Summer’s Moises Arias pretty much stealing the film with a chilling take on the stock older bully character (this kid is really, really good. Should become a movie star from here) But they are all chess pieces, that serve their purposes and then cede into the background. Ford is in autopilot mode, as you’d expect him to be. Viola Davis pops up briefly and Ben Kingsley has an extended cameo. But the movie is on Butterfield, and I think mostly he does a good job, conveying the intelligence of the character well.
Ender’s Game is problematic if you think about it in too much depth. There are several ideas in play here that made me queasy, uncomfortable with what I was seeing and the way in which I was seeing it. The ending does sort of act as a hail-mary absolution of a few of the films problems to a degree, the child exploitation thing, the pro-military and pro-war thing. But to me this felt like an eloquent totalitarian fantasy with a little self-doubt thrown in for good measure, perhaps something the movie adaptation has thrown in to make it go down a little softer. There’s some sci-fi stiffness here, but for what it’s worth I think this was a smart movie, one that explored its subject matter with detail and consideration that could be enjoyable in places, but sort of horrifying in others. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. AKA the perfect popcorn film for kids.