No country for tender children


Ender’s Game ★★★ (Directed by Gavin Hood, 2013)

A tense, cruel game of total annihilation that doesn’t shine a very rosy light on human nature.

Starring: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis.

Written and directed by Gavin Hood based on the novel by Orson Scott Card.

Adventure, science fiction. 1hr 54mins. M for Violence.

It says something scary about our pop-culture preferences that more than one movie this year has featured a story where children are made to do the brutal dirty work of adults.

The latest, Ender’s Game, based Orson Scott Card’s novel, and contender for most disturbing film of 2013, follows hard on the heels of dystopian sci-fi, Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

That film is set in a world where children battle to the death for entertainment.

But troubling as Hunger Games’ premise may seem, Ender’s twisted gambit leaves Katniss’s straight shooting tale looking like a Disney romance by comparison.

He’s a spectacularly gifted child, our Andrew “Ender” Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), born and bred to serve in Earth’s inter-planetary defence force, which has gone into hyperdrive after an attempted invasion of Earth by insect-like aliens, the Formics.

With gruff Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) convinced Ender’s got the right stuff to command a fleet of thousands in the coming war, the boy is tested.

He takes part in intense mind games and simulated space battles that pit his tactical genius against his peers and some of Earth’s greatest fighters.

As Ender and his team run through their final “simulation”, the uber-child’s unique skills and willingness to risk all prove to be Earth’s most powerful and devastating weapons.

With that in mind, and even though Ender’s Game stars a gaggle of kiddies, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a rollicking space adventure for the family.

This is a film about genocide.

Ender is inculcated to believe that means (anything goes) match ends (the total annihilation of your opponent).

But while the film suggests that kind of threat response is morally wrong, it is no less shocking to watch children practise.

The cadets’ training in the sterile surrounds of a space station, spinning far above earth – literally and figuratively removed from humanity – is cruel and brutal.

Imagine your basic military boot camp scenario, complete with screaming staff sergeant, only replace adult recruits with terrified 10-year-olds.

The children take to it with gusto, desperate for the praise of their abusers. It’s hard to watch without feeling uneasy.

With such an incredible cast, though, and special effects to rival any I’ve seen this year so far, it should feel like a much more victorious attack on our penchant for bashing first and asking questions later.

But Ender’s Game is such a cold, dispassionate film, the kernel of hope buried at the end hardly seems likely to take root.

Not that the film is especially gory – you could happily show it to a 10-year-old, but be prepared for some heavy duty parental guidance in the aftermath.

The unease is compounded by an excellent performance from Asa Butterfield who has all the hallmarks of a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

Awkward-but-brave as Ender forcing his way to the top of the military ziggurat, Asa’s vulnerability, when Ender discovers what the struggle has turned him into, is truly affecting.

The adults are hardly less impressive, with Ford turning in an gorgeously bluff and grizzled old war-hound in Graff. It’s possibly the best he’s been in a long time.

(A sour note is Sir Ben Kingsley, with full Ta Moko as Ender’s Maori mentor.

Although he manages a not too risible Kiwi accent, were no Polynesian actors available?

It’s a pity, since director Gavin Hood makes a good fist of ensuring a culturally diverse cast to express how galvanised humanity has become in the face of the alien onslaught.

Despite this and how visually and philosophically rich, it’s hard to recommend Ender’s Game.

The novel’s writer, Card, is a troubling figure and his fiction is similarly troubling, dabbling as it does in vast moral grey areas the film struggles to fully encompass.

But I can’t help welcoming the discussion such moral ambiguity must surely bring up. And isn’t that the goal of any good science fiction?

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