ENDERS GAME presents the viewer with just the sort of philosophical conundrum posed in the film itself. What to do with a film that is a refreshingly intelligent, morally challenging tale , but based on a novel by Orson Scott Card, a man whose views on gay rights are repugnant? It is perhaps jejune to hope that Mr. Cards views are simply born of ignorance, considering his critical thinking skills elsewhere, but then again, an intelligent man at this point in history who espouses such hate is perplexing at the very least. Further complicating things is that the film, it is adapted for the screen and directed by Gavin Hood, a South African filmmaker known for his films championing all human rights, one of which, TSOTSI, won him an Oscar. It goes to show that looking for logic in the workings of the human mind is a fools errand.
As for the film itself, it is a sober, serious thing befitting its content, and at least as far as I can tell, not a hint of homophobia. Fifty years after fending off the Formic Invasion of space ants, at a huge cost of human life, the Earths government has turned to its children to lead them when the next invasion comes. The childs mind, plastic and insatiable, trained up from toddler hood on video war games, would, so the thinking goes, have the best chance of coming up with strategies that will defeat the aliens and keep Earth safe. All of the planets resources are invested, therefore, into finding the best warriors in both mind and body and spirit via rigorous schooling from which most wash out. Ender (Asa Butterfield), the third child in his family in a culture that requires families to seek special permission to procreate that many times, has all the promise that for which the International Fleet, in the person of Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) seeks. An oddball, small for his age, but possessed of a singular ability to win at all costs, and to make sure he wins all future battles by demoralizing his opponent in the present on, he finds himself the object of everyones hopes, and many peoples resentments for being the chosen one.
The first half of the film, though crisply directed by Hood, offers few surprises as Ender overcomes the challenges thrown at him as he makes his way through the training ranks, always with Graff alternately testing and mentoring him. He acquires followers more easily than friends, but after proving himself over and over again, no one questions his leadership. And so it is that as a tender adolescent, he is sent to train for the ultimate showdown between humankind and the Formics. It does, however, succeed as the perfect vehicle for the potent wish-fulfillment of loners and oddballs everywhere who long to belong. If it lacks the intricate history of the novel, it finds its redemption in sheer emotional power.
Character is rarely overshadowed by the special effects necessary to tell the story. Zero gravity training bubbles, video mind games brought to full-scale and full-screen life, graphics simulators with all the punch of real interplanetary battles, are all integrated seamlessly and with a suspense that is cerebral more than adrenal. While Ford growls his way through his part, and now without being effective, and Viola Davis as the psychologist who questions the morality of turning children into killing machines is grapples with a part that is underwritten by infusing it with palpable warmth and compassion, Butterfield is a revelation. With his preternatural blue eyes, and eerie self-possession, he makes Ender not just complicated, but also, with assured subtlety, emotionally resonant. He balances Ender between the extremes of violence and compassion demanded, without making one misstep in the almost two hours he is on screen. His posse, played by Hailee Stanfield, Conor Carroll, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, are standard issue, but there is something about the way Butterfield has Ender believe in them that makes them as important to us as they are to him. Special kudos to Moisas Arias as Enders nemesis at Battle School, a tightly wound and feral beast packed into a diminutive statue that takes nothing away from his menace. I would remind the reader of Arias earlier role as Biaggio in KINGS OF SUMMER earlier this year when I say that there is no young actor working today who is more arresting or fearless.
Though focused on young adults, this is a film that is sophisticated in scope and execution. Never ironic, it poses its questions of relative morality with an unflinching directness designed, and that succeeds, in taking us aback when the mindset of win at any cost is played to its logical conclusion, unchecked by reflection or a thoughtful question. ENDERS GAME has its moment of slack, but it has more moments of shock, disquiet, and simple horror at what humans are capable of in the name of survival.