By Karina “Cinerina” Montgomery
Matinee with Snacks*
My companions and I entered the movie theatre with either zero experience of the source material, dim recollection from a previous read, or fresh recall of the book. The two of us who had read it were feeling apprehensive– the previews seemed to Super Spoil this movie. They kind of still do (post-release previews are even worse), but largely mask that fact.
Ender’s Game is what put author Orson Scott Card on the sci-fi map. As a man, he has execrable personal views I shall not mention. As an author, he tells a tight, psychologically interesting – and prescient – tale of the human cost of war and the ethics of using our young people to wage it. It’s a story begging to be filmed, and at last we have a solid adaptation of an 80’s classic.
In our space-faring future, and 70 years before the film begins, Earth narrowly escaped annihilation at the pincers of the Formics (the never-seen “buggers” in the book). The novel has the luxury of dehumanizing the enemy with anonymity since it has no visuals, but our characters actually learning about the Formics complicates the issue. Since that battle, our planet’s military forces have been rallying a defense by taking children through a difficult boot camp program while they are still young, pliable, and sponge-like, acclimated from video game play and mere youth to be flexible, creative warriors. They start school at age 11 – worst Hogwarts alternative ever – and train in virtual battle, tactics, strategies, and combat methods, building skills to beat the foe next time, while the higher-ups search for a new-born savior like the brilliant commander who ended the war last time.
The story wrestles with the moral implications of devouring a child’s youth, even a society’s entire generation, with war, as well as the broader ethical considerations of defensive versus pre-emptive battle. Written as a short story in 1977 and later released as a full novel in 1985, there is no doubt that Card was influenced by the then-recent record youthfulness of the US military in Vietnam (see also Paul Hardcastle’s “19.”), but more recent conflicts render this story even more relevant. It will blow your minds with the prescient prediction of simulation and CGI technology and the cooperative warmongering nature of our current-day video games and MMORPGs.
OK, so it’s socially relevant – but is it any good? Actually, yes. Space battles (real or virtual) usually put me right to sleep, but the games and footage were quite riveting. The kids perform in a kind of three-dimensional laser tag arena too, which allows us to focus more on the characters than just pushing Capital ships around a monitor.
Asa Butterfield (Hugo) is a perfect casting choice as Ender. He has a thin, prepubescent vulnerability and thozse oceanic eyes filled with all the cold genius and warm frailty this character needs to have. He can turn on an emotional dime in a scene and we can follow him easily. If he had been miscast, even all the other Academy powerhouses in the cast (Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley) couldn’t have made this movie truly sing. Like the fate of humanity, much rests on Butterfield’s shoulders.
It’s a sci-fi action movie, but even more so, it’s about the mind games being played with Ender, his responses, and his own game play to prove his reason to exist. He has a lot of baggage even before the military gets hold of him, and the backbone of the story is watching how he handles it. The pew pew pew is just to put butts in seats.
Please don’t punish this movie for Orson Scott Card’s personal views – they are not on display in the book or the film, and the film deserves your attention for its deft execution. I give it Matinee plus Snacks*.
* As this is my first contribution to Krypton Radio, I feel I should explain my rating system. I rate movies in the language that studios understand: money. If a movie delivers what it promises, then it should be rewarded accordingly. If a movie wastes your time, it should not get as much of your money. “Good” is a concept that extends beyond the arthouse. But I don’t need to tell you nerds that.