Film Review: Ender’s Game

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Attack of the Drones

Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot and the film’s ending. You may want to sleep through this title before reading what follows, including user comments.

In light of Orson Scott Card’s opposition to gay marriage, and the implied homo-disdain there voiced, it’s unfortunate that he chose to call the antagonists of his 1985 junior sci-fi war novel, buggers. Freudians the world over have looked again at the book now it’s been adapted for the big screen, wondering whether the whole thing can be read as an allegory for hormonal teens fighting perversion. The film’s producers have asked that people look beyond the innuendo and concentrate on the story’s real message, but decoding it is another matter.

Director and adaptor-in-chief Gavin Hood, last seen answering for the Wolverine prequel at the International Film Crimes Court, wants us to exit his adventure believing that its purpose is to educate young adult patrons on the virtues of peace and diplomacy…but only after he’s had fun playing war and blowing shit up.

Asa Butterfield’s half-pint is marked out as a master tactician, conditioned to kill at junior boot camp, in scenes reminiscent of a Young Full Metal Jacket, and given the hard sell when it comes to the kind of preventative war beloved of military hawks everywhere. But the titular Ender’s no mini-solider, he’s a liberal proxy, so despite getting both himself and the audience off on some wargame victories and an ascent up the ranks, in which he’s free to indulge in both authoritarian and aggressive instincts, he ultimately concludes it’s not the winning that counts but “how we win”. What a come down for young warmongers hiding erections following Butterfield’s orchestrated alien genocide.

Naturally, given the subject matter, Ender’s Game stokes memories of John Badham’s Wargames, another movie in which young gamers got to play boom boom but ultimately saw the folly following a brush with annihilation. Badham’s treatment was better judged and more succinct, however. Matthew Broderick’s victory over the WOPR computer was also the defeat of mechanical, military logic: the idea that being human means stopping this deadly game before it starts. In Hood’s film the game is played out, the moral a finger-wagging coda. Why do it this way? It’s the payoff for an audience conditioned to expect a grandiose space battle for the better part of two hours. Credit must go to Hood and Card; they worked out a way to both deliver the payload without compromising their hero’s peace keeping instincts and comment on the cognitive disconnect that exists between remote warfare and real casualties, but the film that precedes the admonishment has been designed to appeal to the very instincts it pretends to criticise. How else to deliver the spectacle and thrills considered vital to the movie’s prospects with its target demographic?

A satire like Starship Troopers feels like a better way of squaring this circle. Johnny Rico and his pals never learned a damn thing and the movie was better for it. It was enough that we knew humanity were the bad guys. Here the didacticism feels like a false note, too little, too late.

The insincerity’s compounded by Hood’s workmanlike direction and an indifferent cast. Butterfield just about holds up in the lead role but the Bugsy Malone company make it difficult to take the dramatic beats seriously, with one left to wonder whether kids are really the ideal on-screen surrogates for audience members of the same age. When I was a boy all my heroes were adults: that’s how young imaginations get their kicks. These after-school soldiers, plot essential or no, are too slight to engage our attention while the adults, Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, cut mono-dimensional figures in a film that desperately needed some weight to bring it to life. As it stands it evokes the gaming experience all too well.

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 114 mins

Certificate: 12A for Ben Kingsley's accent, child actors and Harrison Ford's jowls.

15 Responses

  1. -_- says:

    This is a joke. Take your head out of your ass and dont review movies youre obviously biased against.

  2. jeff says:

    To even suggest that the term bugger is supposed to represent homosexuals it not only ludicrous, it’s downright stupid and ignorant.

    First of all, every major war that has ever taken place has one side calling the other nicknames in order to demonize them. It’s basic psychology. We call the Japanese “Japs” and “Zipperheads” and so on, just like how Nazi soldiers used to be called “Krauts” by American soldiers. Why wouldn’t humans call an alien race a derogetory term, too? Especially if they looked like giant bugs?

    For that matter, Starship Troopers did the same thing! The word Bugger isn’t just in Ender’s Game, so why are you acting like it is?

    Honestly, people are getting so hung up over the author’s views that they’re forgetting that a lot of open-minded people worked on this film. Card wrote the story, sure, but there’s nothing about gay people in the book. In fact, there are several sections where it pushes tolerance and equality. If the author’s views weren’t out there for people to see, no one would ever analyze any of this.

    It’s funny how everyone is harping over this issue, because it’s not the first time a famous author has thought these things or had these opinions. Over half of the US is opposed to gay marriage, but because this person is famous and making novels, people are all over him.

    Learn to separate the artist from the art, people. Tom Cruise is a crazy nut, but you still go to see his movies, don’t you? Same thing is true of Mel Gibson and several others.

    Get over it.

  3. rmason says:

    read the first line about thengay controversy, understood the author of this article wasna lgbt hypocrite who expects people to only think and agree with HIS point of view, wrote this message and left.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      I’m grateful for the commentary on your thought process and indeed the act of writing the comment and leaving the site. I don’t think I could have pieced together the “wrote this message and left” part without your help. Obliged.

  4. Val says:

    I tried to read your review without bias, which is more than you did for the movie makers. Your point about all your heroes being adults was interesting; I absolutely agreed with your comment about the morality play after “blowing shit up;” and your Wargames comment about being human was intriguing even though the comparison didn’t work. In Wargames, the Russian missiles were not on their way to annihilate the US when the movie began. If you ever write a review of Wargames, I’d read it.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      I’m not obliged to be unbiased y’know.

      The comparison related to theme not plot, though if you want to talk about Wargames’ story, it’s driven by the threat of war, irrespective of whether the Russians had actually attacked or not. What is the nuclear deterrent if not a threat designed to make a bully/potential aggressor think twice? So the point is that Wargames’ message, “the only winning move is not to play”, works because the game itself is shown to be an act of madness. There’s no getting off on attacking the other side as the characters actively work to avoid that outcome. It’s harder for Ender’s Game to make the point as clearly when Ender’s doubts about attacking are so half-hearted and the movie so pumped for that final confrontation. His war guilt felt like a bit of a Damascene conversion to me. 🙂

  5. RobThom says:

    An interesting review with some well reasoned observations.

    Although your political bias was evident and on your sleeve starting with the first sentence.

    Thats your right, but then everything that followed required a bit of de-agenda translation.


    Although your review still comes out a “rotten” I’m glad that its being generally considered decent.

    Gavin Hood is a decent director, Wolverine misstep aside.
    I’d rather watch a Hood movie before an abrams movie any day.

  6. Rich says:

    Wow, Ed…guess I can’t listen to “Rocket Man” without examining the lyrics to find the pro-queer agenda that Elton & Bernie hid so well many years ago.

    No, you’re not obligated to be unbiased in your personal life. To extend that to your professional work is a disservice to criticism. Can’t watch Apocalypse Now because anti-Semite Wagner’s work is used in the score; can’t watch Woody Allen’s or Polanski’s movies because of their moral degeneracy. That would be the result of applying your “logic” to enjoyment of art.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      This is a good point and an important argument. Separating art from the people who make it is sometimes necessary I think. Look at Rolf Harris.

      You forgot about Hitler’s paintings of course; let’s not write those off.

      A better man than me might have avoided the open goal of an openly anti-gay author naming his antagonists “buggers” but I’m not a better man. Making a joke about it – note a joke, literal minded readers* – seemed to me a good way to frame the movie in its proper cultural context, i.e. Position it in light of the controversy surrounding its release following Card’s comments. I’m sorry if that, er, rubbed a few of you up the wrong way, but I couldn’t care less.

      The eagle eyed amongst you will note that once “framed” the discussion swiftly moves on to the movie itself, with Card’s ugly, and in light of the movie’s alleged message, hypocritical remarks retaking their seats in the background. Given that’s the case I’m not sure what readjustment for so-called “bias” some readers feel they need to make, but rest assured I’d have felt the same about the movie even if I’d had Orson Scott Card levels of ignorance regarding the author’s prejudices.

      What’s that? You don’t believe me? That’s a pity, innit.

      *I’m soon to attend a critics conference in Switzerland entitled “Ruining Movie Reviews Forever: Adding Emoticons to pieces to communicate tone of voice on the Internet”. I’ll let you know what we decide.

  7. GokouZWAR says:

    Its funny how card is judged by the anti-gay stuff before people even really watch the movie. Clearly you already judged this movie before you stepped foot in the theater.

    The fact remains that he is entitled to his opinions and even has said his opinions mean squat when the laws are in place that allow people to do whatever it is gays do. There are places where gays can’t do what they want to do and for those of us that don’t like watching men tongue each other, those are the places where those of us go. How his views of gays pertain to any of this movie is beyond me except in the reason that by going to the movie you support the producers that decided to see the book as it was – one of our greatest sci-fi books of all time – and want to make a movie out of it. They already paid card for the movie. So you punish them and make them waste their money because they liked the book and decided to look past the man’s personal views and focus on the book and the movie.

    The movie and book have nothing to do with gay rights, or anti-gay rights. You clearly have a chip on your shoulder about those views, and if you enjoy watching men tongue obviously this movie probably isn’t for you. The fact that you hide your review in a midst of big, overly thought, words in an attempt to show off how smart you are, clearly you have no clue what the movie was even about. The protagonist in this movie was just like any other kid who seeks out to be liked and loved by many in a world that doesn’t reciprocate that kind of love when it comes down to “us or them” type mentalities. The world is full of selfish people who will do anything to get their way. This is what the movie and book are truly about. There are people like Graff in this world who will step on you to get things they want and the innocence of Ender who is merely trying to win the love of his peers and mentors happens everyday. This movie and the book attempt to showcase those kinds of moral dilemmas and make you think about what kind of person you are. Are you an Ender or a Graff? The next books in the series go into more details about that when Ender and the colony of Lusitania discover the next alien race and then the choice of “us or them” comes into play on an even more grande scale when the choice to destroy an entire world is brought to light again over humans vs aliens and whether or not humans as a whole are more evil than we would like to think. Should we be exterminated or should we be ALLOWED to live? Except this time there’s no child innocence. The captain of the ship that drops the little doctor uses the “Ender mentality” and disobeys orders to destroy the planet despite the fact that his orders are to clearly not to. Card does an excellent job with this in the books. The movies are much harder to portray this and even in the harry potter series and the hunger games movies, those movies can’t live up to the awesomeness of the books. This one is no different in that aspect. You have to sacrifice to put it on screen and Card wrote the script himself and Hood took that script and made a movie out of it. I really hope some day Card publishes the original script. I’d really like to see how much was changed from his original ideas but that’s just my two cents on that matter.

    People like you who are just as judgmental as card was to gays are no different and IMO deserve to be the ground zero of the next little doctor device. Card asked for those that oppose his view to be tolerant of those who opposed them, and clearly there is no tolerance from the winners. The winners are now flaunting it and rubbing it in everyone’s faces, and boycotting movies that have nothing to do except to fund their gay agendas. Me personally I don’t care if men want to tongue each other in the privacy of their own homes. It’ll be their choice and the final judgement by God in the end. I don’t think we should have laws in place that deny them their rights to do this. It is a free country after all. I don’t like seeing it at all but me, I just don’t look at it when they do what they do. When I have to explain it to my kids I tell them that what they are doing is wrong and they will be judged later in live. Be it by HIV or old age…in the end all men answer to God. But to judge a man for trying to stop them from doing it in public and taking a stand for what HE believes in by flaming out a perfectly good movie is appalling and shows just how small you really are.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      “Its funny how card is judged by the anti-gay stuff before people even really watch the movie. Clearly you already judged this movie before you stepped foot in the theater.”

      Cross that off on your comment cliché bingo card. For the others clichés on your game card, read:

      Readers may not be conscious that this is a huge moment in Internet history. How do you have the means to write a message from 30 years in the past? Do you have one of the first personal computers? How does the temporal link up work? It’s fascinating to read social attitudes from the 1980s, though you’re probably aware that they’re already looking a little archaic. I’m sorry to tell you that by the 2010s, the idea that homosexuality is in some way a moral or lifestyle choice, or indeed that God created the HIV virus to punish them, will be considered as idiotic and backward as the notion that women shouldn’t vote or slavery’s a sound mechanism for reducing wage costs. It also gives me no pleasure to tell you that indoctrinating your kids to believe that shit will, in the future, be construed not as great parenting and sound moral instruction, but child abuse.

      If I may say so you’re very lucky to live in a time when there’s no perceived contradiction between the message of tolerance and understanding in Card’s novel and his deep-seated hatred of gay people. Unfortunately by 2013 the absurdity of that position will be clear for all to see. People who trumpet such brain-farts will rightly be written off as either deluded or belonging to a group that we call “web trolls”.

      Anyway, I’m not going to bother restating why the comment on Card was necessary to set up a discussion of the movie or point out that the issue of gay rights had zero to do with the review that followed, I’ll just allow you to read back my existing replies and discover this for yourself. If you can’t be bothered to do that, I invite you to go fuck yourself.

      Continue to enjoy the ’80’s. Man, that was a quite a decade. Wait until you see Star Trek: The Next Generation – an optimistic, peaceful vision of the future in which the watchwords are tolerance and understanding. As a fan of Orson Scott Card you’re gonna love it.

  8. Liam says:

    The book doesn’t function as a simple admonishment against xenocide or mass violence, and assuming the movie is reasonably faithful to the novel, it doesn’t eith- (I have to stop you there. This is a review of the movie Ender’s Game, not the novel or the series of novels. Once you’ve seen it, feel free to return and comment on the review’s conclusions. Ed)

  9. Jonathan says:

    Sorry, Ed. It seems you did not understand the subject matter of the story. It is not making a profound comment about war. The author firmly believes that sometimes war is necessary. Anyone who believes this is not true has not studied history. There are bad people out their. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, countless others. Maybe grind your axe somewhere else. Maybe the movie does not do a good job of adapting the books, but if you are going to slam Card, maybe you should win the books. It did win the Nebula and Hugo, and sci-fi fans and authors, even in the 80’s, were notoriously liberal. They saw a story with a profound moral lesson. Give it a try!

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Well I’m reluctant to say it again but this is a review of Ender’s Game: The Movie, not the novel, the story of which I understood just fine. If you tell me that the novels make the case for war I don’t doubt you, but the film’s critique of its necessity is very clear. Regarding axe grinding and slamming Card, I refer you to my previous replies.

      Incidentally Card wrote early drafts of the screenplay upon which Gavin Hood’s is based.