“Ender’s Game” is filled with lessons for youngsters that they already learned and many adults wish they hadn’t. Chief among these: Grown ups lie to kids with astounding frequency. In happy homes these falsehoods are calculated to shield children, but, in “Ender’s Game,” adults use lies to manipulate an army of youngsters charged with protecting mankind.
Based on the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card and set 100 years into the future, humankind is organizing to defeat the Formics, a large ant-like species of extraterrestrials that nearly overran earth 50 years prior. At that time humans were saved by the brave actions of young space pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), a seeming kamikaze whose heroics are repeatedly viewed on video by children presently undergoing military training.
According to Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), children, with their elastic minds and instinctual responses, represent our best hope of defeating this otherworldly race. His reasoning, however novel, constitutes a large story hole that becomes evident as the film wears on. It might have sucked in the entire production if not for director Gavin Hood, who also wrote the screenplay.
Adapting the novel for a two-hour film, Hood places hero, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), in consistent peril that transfixes the viewer. Most of that peril is caused by Ender’s isolation from friends and loved ones, rendering the scrawny 12 year old vulnerable to bullies and the whims of Colonel Graff.
Pushed rapidly up the training ladder, Ender is kept sleep deprived as he is cruelly tested. At one point he wears a brain monitor allowing his superiors to see and hear everything Ender does and says. His computerized tablet is equipped with a game allowing psychologist Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) to spy on his actions — supposedly to assess Ender’s state of mind. Not that any of this monitoring is taken into account on behalf of Ender’s well-being once Colonel Graff decides the boy is “the one.”
Some of the film’s more poetic sequences occur during Ender’s hand-to-hand combat training inside a geodesic dome in outer space, where he and all combatants are weightless. It is here that Ender builds his leadership skills and earns the trust of his team. Card’s ability to dream up battle strategies in this environment is immensely gratifying and, though the same can’t be said for his space battles, are all beautifully staged and choreographed.
Ender’s greatest ability lies in understanding others and taking that knowledge into account when calculating his next move. He so greatly outshines the film’s adults as a truth teller and righter of wrongs that I wouldn’t be surprised if he popped up in a “Star Wars” prequel as president of the Galactic Federation.