When Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a sensitive but incisive boy, is recruited from his home to join an elite Battle School, Ender masters the art of war through his natural brilliance and compassion. He quickly earns the respect and envy of his peers and is championed by military commander Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) as the greatest hope for mankind.
His performance in military training will determine his chance of victory against an alien species known as the Formics, as well as the fate of the entire human race. Based on the 1985 science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game imagines a dystopian world with “one child to rule them all,” and Ender has the potential to either save the world or destroy it.
Very few film adaptations succeed in capturing the emotion and the imagination that a book can communicate, but Ender’s Game does so as faithfully as one might hope. Asa Butterfield’s acting is superb, and the supporting roles of Hailee Steinfeld (as female fighter Petra Arkanian) and Harrison Ford are also exemplary. Even the minor roles of Ender’s classmates and family are perfectly cast. Butterfield commands the screen with his combination of vulnerability, intensity and resilience. He masterfully conveys both the strength and the empathy required of the role, and if not for his youthful appearance, he could pass for an undersized adult.
While the acting and the emotion are ultimately what propel the film, the futuristic setting is also beautifully and intricately crafted. Director Gavin Hood and his production designers surrounded the Battle Room with panoramic windows so that the cadets get a full view of outer space as they float at zero gravity. True to the book, the battle sequences offer a thrilling and immersive, but chilling simulation of real-life war. The training games are a fusion of laser tag and quidditch in space, and one might at once compare the Battle School to West Point and “Hogwarts in the sky.”
Equally clever are the video game dream sequences, in which the characters are transformed into realistic CG animations, and reality and fantasy converge. The CG effects are stunningly elegant. One can never know whether the animated horrors represent simple spectacle or a true portrayal of Ender’s circumstance.
One critique of the film is that some deaths are downplayed or implied, rather than confirmed. For a story that poses complex questions about just war, responsibility and righteous leadership, it is unnecessary to mitigate the realities of such a war, and including these deaths would have strengthened the movie. Incorporating these scenes could have helped the film convey its underlying message—that violence divorced from empathy is destructive and useless. Yet perhaps the director used this uncertainty to emphasize the ignorance of a hero kept unaware of his true circumstances.
Indeed, what is most disturbing in the film is the way that young children are compelled to make decisions about leadership, loyalty, life and death that no one at such an age should have to make. They must face the pressure of choosing between their ambition, the praise of adults and their own moral principles.
Among the pantheon of trendy films about children fighting in wars, it is tempting to dismiss Ender’s Game as just another addition to the genre. But more than an action-packed spectacle about precocious children who rebel against corrupt authorities, the movie is contemplative artistry asking legitimate questions about just war, the value of unknown life forms and the morality of violence apart from compassion. Audience members will come for the dazzling special effects and brilliant acting, but the film’s staying power lies in its subtle delivery of questions that haunt and challenge.