You can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the big cheeses at Summit Entertainment when it came out that the author and producer of their new blockbuster, Ender’s Game, was at the forefront of such controversy. (Don’t feel that sorry for them though, Orson Scott Card has been writing about this stuff since the nineties).
But despite the boycotts and the protests from the LGBT community, there is very little (none in fact) about Card’s views on homosexuality in Ender’s Game, just some good old-fashioned PG-13 musings on war, killer instinct and blurred lines during conflict.
Andrew ˜Ender’ Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a strategic genius who lives in a time when children’s capacity for forward planning and gaming is being used to combat a hostile alien race known as the Formics. The world’s military leaders are all looking for the next child-commander to lead the war that will ˜end all future wars’ with the creatures and Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff sets about molding Ender into the perfect commander. But is Ender too compassionate, like his sister, too hotheaded, like his brother, or does he have the right combination of the two?
The first two thirds of the film follows Ender on his (literally) meteoric rise through the solar system from military training academy to command school as his superiors Harrison Ford and Viola Davis go back and forth discussing whether or not Ender is the leader they have all been waiting for. During this time the film does a great job building a sense of anticipation, as Ender is drawn further and further into a hostile world of competition and combat training, where all is maybe not as it seems.
A lot of screen time is given to Ford and Davis “ Ford wants Ender to be more cunning and more ruthless, Davis wants him to be more compassionate “ but somehow the repartee between these two juggernauts is the most boring part of Ender’s development, which is lifted up by some zero-gravity Quidditch-style laser-quest in a giant glass ball suspended over earth’s orbit.
Maybe it’s because these gender-biased discussions seem old and tired (because clearly we’re not over the woman soft, man strong, dichotomy yet) or maybe it’s because we never really get a sense of who Ender is. His soft spot for his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) is supposed to show us his empathetic side, but let’s face it, Ender is a bit of a wimpy kid who gets targeted a lot and when he stands up for himself his parents and superiors worry that he is some sort of psychopath in the making. Was he destined to be a ruthless killer from birth or was he a sensitive boy who got manipulated by the system? The film never really tells us.
Asa Butterfield gives a solid performance as the underdog with eyes of steel, but this lack of empathy with the main character becomes a problem at the film’s climax when we don’t know whether to feel sorry for Ender or whether to feel anything at all. (This is further complicated by the fact that when the climax comes, you don’t realise it’s the climax until after the fact.)
Director Gavin Hood has done an excellent visual job of putting what is essentially the Space Invaders games meets The Hunger Games on screen, but you can’t help but feel that the problem is with the source material. Why should we care about teenagers playing computer games and an alien race that is only introduced to us in the third act? Kudos to everyone involved for daring to make a family film with some thought-provoking themes, but they never go far enough. Ender’s Game sits too much on the fence, but hey, it’s always fun watching Harry go to space camp.