Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) believes that love and war are not opposites but fraternal twins. “When I understand my enemy enough to defeat him,” he observes, “then I also love him.” That could be the motto of a New Age soldier, listening to Enya as he slaughters a foe; but Ender is barely scraping puberty. Still, he’s man enough to butt wills against Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), the glowering officer who has recruited the boy to lead a platoon of misfit kids against a hostile power. “I’m not the enemy,” Graff tells him before one big battle. And Ender replies, “I’m not so sure.”
Herbert Hoover said that “Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die.” Hoover, addressing the 1944 Republican National Convention, was casting the light of history on the carnage in World War II. Orson Scott Card, in his 1977 novella and 1985 novel Ender’s Game, was speaking as a prophet of both military strategy and pop entertainment. He saw the future, and it was playing to the death.
(READ: The Simpsons‘ Matt Selman on the Perfect Ender’s Game Video Game)
Back when the big video game was Super Mario Brothers, and decades before U.S. government technicians sent aerial drones half a world away to target enemies in civilian areas, Card imagined war as a video game waged by the very young — their reflexes sharp, their minds malleable. Preteens, commanded by the precocious Ender, stare at a giant screen and aim drone strikes at a real or simulated planet whose insect inhabitants, known as “buggers” or ‘Formics, appear bent on destroying Earth. Press a button and the buggers go BOOM! The kids fight but do not die. No pain, all gain.
Since 1985, and especially in the past dozen or so years, the real world caught up with Ender’s Game. The U.S. Marine Corps placed the novel on its recommended reading list for offering “lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics.” (You have to wonder if the librarian in charge read the book all the way to the end.) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Stephenie Meyer’s Hunger Games quartet adapted Card’s notion of a Battle School that instructed children in the dark arts of combat. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s more troubling novel Never Let Me Go, and in the excellent movie made from it, a group of children is schooled in preparation for the special sacrifice their nation demands of them.
(READ: Corliss’s review of the film Never Let Me Go)
The trope of young soldiers controlling their war machines from afar has become a fixture in dozens of SF movies, from Avatar to Pacific Rim. Meanwhile, the video-game universe has expanded, indeed exploded, in craft, violence and popularity. Grand Theft Auto V earned more money in a day ($800 million) than any movie, including Avatar, has registered in its entire run in North American theaters.
Yet it has taken a long generation for Card’s novel to be filmed. Lev Grossman, TIME’s book critic and author of several acclaimed science-fiction novels, has argued that Ender’s Game virtually cries out to be a movie — and also that, because of the young characters and daunting special-effects challenges, the project is essentially unadaptable.
Greed to the rescue. Summit Entertainment, the studio that grossed more than $3.3 billion on Meyer’s Twilight Saga, noted last year’s expiration date on the vampire series and figured that Card’s franchise, which comprises 13 novels (with more on the way), might fill the void. Hence Summit’s $110-million investment in a movie whose most prominent players are kids: Butterfield, star of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and, as Ender’s closest comrade in the children’s crusade, Hailee Steinfeld of the Coen brothers’ True Grit.
Never mind that Card’s fulminations against gay marriage (“marks the end of democracy in America”) and Barack Obama (you know: “Hitler“) have stoked protests against the movie. Breaking news: People with crackpot ideas can write important books (cf. Céline). Yes, it’s probable that O.S. Card will not win an Oscar from the liberal members of the Motion Picture Academy. But the picture’s target demographics are unlikely to be swayed by GLAAD or the Huffington Post; they just want to see a cool movie this weekend.
Cool — in the sense of its emotional temperature and steely graphics — pretty much describes director Gavin Hood’s film version. There’s plenty of action, both digital (Ender in zero gravity, whirling and firing like a gunslinger on a carousel) and fist-to-face (Ender whups a bigger bully, adding, “Just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me”). But the color scheme is neutral, muted, a murmur of institutional grays and pastels, like that of the 1982 SF movie Tron and its 2010 sequel — not surprising, since production designer Sean Haworth and costumer Christine Bieselin Clark both worked on Tron: Legacy.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Tron: Legacy)
The book and the movie both focus on the basic training of Ender and his fellow cadets, with tough Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie, from Game of Thrones) shouting at the kids as if this were a middle-school fantasy remake of Full Metal Jacket; say, Full Metal Rocket. But Dap’s tone lacks the fury of malevolence. (Add an “I” to that word and you get male violence.) The sick passion of brutality is left to the teen boys who foolishly test Ender’s fighting skills and resolve. In fact, the movie’s only verklempt moment comes when Dap smiles and salutes Ender — a grunt acknowledging a genius.
A gifted child or a sociopath, or a bit of both? Ender is the youngest of three children, and the book’s big question Is whether he more closely resembles his sadistic brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) or his sweet sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin)? The movie forfeits that suspense, since Butterfield, who turned 15 when Ender’s Game was being shot last year, has the giant blue bathyspheric eyes and otherworldly winsomeness of Elijah Wood’s Frodo. He’s a star child on Earth.
(FIND: The Lord of the Rings on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)
The movie’s Ender resorts to defending himself only when all negotiations have failed. The forces roiling his soul are mostly external: his rival cadets and, no less, his commanders: Graff and senior psychiatrist Anderson (Viola Davis), who engage in logorrheic debates over the boy’s state of mind, and the legendary warrior Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley, who’s a visual and auditory hoot in Maori tattoos and his most curious accent since he played the Mandarin in Iron Man Three). Ender gets odder messages from the video game he plays in his brief spare time. The insect planet holds a secret, and dear Valentine beckons to him.
Rarely throbbing with preadolescent thrills, like the old Saturday-matinee serials that most SF means to co-opt, but almost always impressive, the Ender’s Game movie marks an encouraging step up for its screenwriter-director. Born and bred in South Africa, Hood won but did not earn an Oscar for the social drama Tsotsi, then directed the somnolent political film Rendition and the non-whelming X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
(READ: Corliss’s review of X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
Somehow, this time, Hood found the resources to guide his child-dominated cast and his gifted visual-effects team. The film channels a hundred artifacts of pop culture — antediluvian video games like Space Invaders and Tom Cruise’s orchestra-conductor gestures at a computer screen from MInority Report — but in a contemplative, almost dreamy fashion. Ender’s Game is like its protagonist: sturdy, wary and bright.
And while the picture loses some plot tension by assuring the viewer that Ender is basically an okay kid, it gains by showing the growth of the boy into his destiny as “the One.” Orson Scott Card might disapprove of the connection, but Ender is in no way Hitler. He’s more like the early hope of Obama.