Enders Game – Gavin Hood adapts and directs a film that will be defined by its sequels. (Film Review)
In the raging battle for the pre-teen, teen and YA market place Enders Game is the latest addition to hit the screens, but its a little tricky for Lionsgate Films to land this one safely and it will be interesting to see how Enders Game goes. The film’s story is a long way from the plotting of the book, but given Orson Scott Cards recent publicity, and the original novels overt militarism (not to mention the original name of the evil enemy as being ‘buggers’) some distance from the novel may pan out to be a good thing. The problem with this distance is cutting off the original fan base, who will no doubt be disappointed with the film and who are usually relied upon to fuel up the opening weekends and spread the pre-hyped-word about the franchise. At the time I write this review, Enders Game still hasn’t returned its budget after a month in the US marketplace.
The book Enders Game is so devoted to military thinking that it is recommended reading on the American Marine Corps reading list, and has been since its publication in 1985. Even from the film, which is a much watered down version of the book, it isn’t surprising as to why this might be. The film opens with Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) competing for a spot in a high leve military school for teens. The year 2086, and the earth was attacked years earlier by an alien species seeking a new habitat for its problems of overpopulation. These Formics were accidentally defeated when Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), earths war hero, blew up a mother ship paralyzing the smaller attack probes around her. The intention now, is to raise an army that can go and defeat the Formics on their own turf and thereby prevent all future attacks. Somewhere along the line the human race worked out that young people addicted to video games (who could be trained) were the best recruits for the mental agility and tactical wit required to defeat this new kind of foe. The bulk of the film takes us through Enders training as he defeats his competition, in some cases, beating them physically even when they can’t fight back. This, understandably bothers Ender a little.
Enders inner civil war is externalized through his relationship with his older brother Peter (Jeremy Pinchak) and younger sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) both failures in the recruiting competition, Peter because of overt aggression and Valentine because of overt empathy. Ender vacillates between these two influences, thinking like his brother when he needs to take dramatic (violent) action and thinking like his sister in order to stay sane and intuitively in touch with the heart and soul of his enemy. Enders dilemma occurs when he discovers that the closer he gets to the mind of the enemy, the more in touch with its vulnerabilities and therefore the more destruction he can commit. Only one adult is sensitive to these issues, his minder Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis).
The ethical problem with Enders Game is the notion of war as a video game and subsequent desensitization. interestingly, it is the same issue raised by The Hunger Games, though its target is reality television, Enders Game’s target is video games. The Hunger Games tackles the issue head on, identifying it as erroneous immediately it starts, while Enders Game doesn’t get into the ethical consequences of Enders behaviour until the last fifteen minutes of the film, which not only opens it up for a sequel but (without giving away any spoilers) completely changes the moral trajectory of the film and sets the tone of the films to come. The end of the film relieves the problems of the first hour and a half, which start to look like a right-wing apologist film for youth conscription – the younger the better. Strategy is spoken about endlessly, but not with the spiritual fetishism of an eastern influenced martial arts film (and I have no idea why they didn’t go there) rather its an empty round-a-bout race to win each game on its own merits. The reason d’être for Ender is survival of the human race, but even this is not used as the spiritual anchor driving a win. It leaves the film soul less, and without the required legs to develop audience interest. It leaves Ender looking like a bit of a brat who, contrary to what we are told about him, is terrifyingly obedient.
None of these problems exist in the novel, but other ones do, and therefore the novel has been white-washed for the sake of the film. Everything does hinge on the final fifteen minutes and it improves the film dramatically. One gets a strong feeling Enders Game is the very tip of a conversation rather than a meaty introduction. The original series of books that start with Enders Game are five in total, but the second one, Speaker for the Dead, Card has specifically stated he doesn’t want filmed, but there is no doubt there will be at least a second film. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.