I first read “Ender’s Game” my freshman year of high school. It left a curious mark on me, something I still feel when I revisit the book. I’m always struck by the brutality of it; not the physical violence but the unrelenting commitment to an image I still can’t fully conceive — that of six-year-olds who walk and talk like George S. Patton. The imagination isn’t prepared for that sort of image.
Neither is the movie. The new “Ender’s Game,” written and directed by Gavin Hood, maintains most of the premise, about a gifted baby Napoleon who’s sent to combat school in order to prevent an alien invasion, but it bumps up the baby Napoleon’s age until he’s a baby no more. By the time we meet him, Ender’s already broken through to the tail end of puberty and he’s tall enough to stand against most of his adult superiors.
Maybe 20 years ago, when the film first entered production, this would’ve still been creepy. The thought of children doing anything violent to each other was still shocking to me at 14. But that was before “The Hunger Games” and the last few “Harry Potter” books. That was before the superhero genre made massive carnage acceptable for families to watch on screen together. “Ender’s Game” hits theatres now at a time when his game is being played by every child in every YA story and Ender, as played by Asa Butterfield, might be a little more callous than his peers but in the end he’s just another Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen with even less of an emotional range.
If you’re a fan of the book and are afraid that the film absolutely butchers what made the novel resonate, you can rest easy knowing that, compared to other adaptations and remakes of this caliber, “Ender’s Game” is visually appetizing and directed by a confident hand. Especially compared to last month’s lifeless “Carrie,” Gavin Hood has a vision for the film that survives onto the screen. He builds the future Earth and its orbiting Battle School out of Spartan yet evocative shots. Figures of authority are often situated at the center of the frame, giving actors like Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley enough intimacy to be gruff and commanding, even in a project they’re blatantly stooping down to, and Hood gets the most mileage when he’s holding our gaze on Butterfield’s milky, glazed eyes, which speak more to his isolation than any line he delivers in a crackly-voiced monotone.
“Ender’s Game” imagines space technology as an IKEA display circa 2050 AD, which seems to be the standard now for most sci-fi films. The more impressive effects and the more compelling scenes are those where Ender plays a fantasy video game, animated to look like the sort of game you could buy right now for the X-Box or PlayStation.
The message still is, as it was in the book, that by turning war into a video game you enable people to dehumanize everyone. Had Hood applied as much consistency to his script as he does to the film’s aesthetic, “Ender’s Game” might have had something specific to say about how children consume modern media.
What it says instead is a little more jumbled, and not much of anything, really. The narrative never moves forward towards any culmination, since Hood is just cutting out scenes from the book and stringing them together with the bigger set-pieces that justify the IMAX ticket price. Where characters had time to interact and develop through prose, they now yammer with exposition, briskly cut together to give the fake impression of momentum.
I suspect most viewers, fans of the book and newcomers alike, will grow bored very quickly once it becomes clear that there’s not much to latch onto in ‘Ender.’
More than his being too old for the part or his being one in a dozen among tween protagonists, he’s just not all that interesting to watch. The film never allows him to embrace the full height of his cruelty. It wants to keep him standing on that pinpoint spot between sympathetic and morally gray. It wants him to be pleasant nothingness.