The best sci-fi is when the science fiction is incidental to a satisfying story. In most aspects, Ender’s Game meets this standard, and sometimes exceeds it to a fault. While the film takes place in a science fiction setting, with intergalactic battles against aliens, the focus of the movie is more on how a physically weak boy handles bullying, which is a story that really doesn’t need a sci-fi backdrop to tell. Knowing that, this film will likely please everyone, but will especially shine in the eyes of viewers who may have endured the same tribulations growing up.
Sometime in the future, Earth is attacked by an alien race called Formics. Millions of humans died during the invasion, but humanity prevailed, eventually pushing back the Formics to their home planet. Fearing a repeat attack, the International Forces began to groom children for fleet command positions, believing that children can absorb and calculate information faster than adults. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-year-old with exceptional reasoning and problem-solving skills. As such, he’s recruited by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and taken to the prestigious Battle School located in deep space where other young hopefuls learn warfare theory and compete against each other in a series of athletic games. Along the way, Ender’s unmatched ability to strategize and understand behavior will win him friends, but also earn him enemies. And everyone wants a shot at leading the fleet.
While the stakes are certainly high in Ender’s Game, the story is actually rather intimate. The majority of the film is spent watching Ender cope with bullies – both peers and adults. The average moviegoer will no doubt enjoy watching Ender outsmart his opponents who only have numbers and physical dominance in their arsenals, but for those who actually experienced a similar childhood, Ender’s Game will be satisfying on a very deep level. Ender’s skills are the same skills bullied people have had to develop for simple self-preservation, and the film does a wonderful job of bringing that experience to the silver screen.
Ender’s Game does eventually have to get back to the larger story, however, and while it hits all the points audiences have come to expect from a Hollywood film – pre-emptive war is bad, communicating with our enemies is good – the story is only interesting in a perfunctory way. One theme that is surprisingly left largely unexplored is the militarization of children. The audience spends a good portion of the film watching the children jog to a cadence, salute and otherwise look like small soldiers, all while participating in mock battles where they shoot at and “kill” each other. Later, they wage war against the aliens in a series of “games” that simulate the real thing. It’s hard to believe there was no overt commentary on today’s video games and preparation to do violence. Nevertheless, this omission won’t be missed.
There’s always a danger of poor performances in a film about children. Adults are usually villainous caricatures, and the child actors do their best to ape physical responses to emotions they haven’t experienced yet. Fortunately, most of the kids are directed to be kids, and the adults are directed to act naturally. Here the adult cast shines in a subtle way. Their interaction with the children walks the fine line that teachers and coaches know; they don’t attempt to extract age and experience out of the children – that’s impossible. Instead, they nurture maturity, and that sentiment comes through vividly. Asa Butterfield does a fine job carrying the film, but his lack of perspective due to his age is visible in some areas beneath his acting. Fortunately, his shortcomings are never to the point of distraction.
Ender’s Game will probably surprise many in how easy it is to enjoy. It is visually appealing, it has a strong cast, and it has good messages that families can enjoy. Most of all, it takes a serious issue that children deal with every day and tells a serious story about it. Come to see that story; stay for the sci-fi.