Ironically, given Orson Scott Card’s foolish and futile opposition to gay rights, his 1985 YA sci-fi novel “Ender’s Game” not only preaches tolerance, but has also given solace to countless gay kids and other outsiders struggling with loneliness and alienation. And some of the scenes in the book — an assault in the shower, for example — are frankly homoerotic. So the good his book has done helping kids cope has probably more than balanced any damage the author himself has done with his outspoken homophobia.
But to limit the book to such sexual politics doesn’t do it justice. More important, it achieves a prescient glimpse into a future dominated by virtual reality, drone warfare, and poisonous demagoguery. And at its core it dramatizes the crucial conflict between empathy and destruction.
With so much to work with, it is disappointing that Gavin Hood’s adaptation is not much more than the world’s coolest video game. Despite so many volatile issues, this version of “Ender’s Game” lacks passion and pain. Acted without affect in settings that are as devoid of humanity as the space station in “2001,” this game plays out with cold precision but little team spirit.
And that may be intentional. Like Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (1997), Hood might be demonstrating that the price of defeating an alien is that you might become one yourself. As in “Troopers,” the invading extraterrestrials here are big bugs, “Formics,” whose swarm-like behavior proves devastatingly powerful but also presents an exploitable weakness. If a leader can think like the bugs and respond with an intuitive human solution, he might be able to strike a lethal blow.
That was the situation 50 years earlier when the Formics attacked earth and almost wiped out the human race. Only the last-ditch, mad-dog genius of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) saved the day. Now the strategy is to conduct a massive preemptive strike and destroy the aliens before they can attack again. Is it genocide? As Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford, whose features are beginning to resemble those of a battered planetoid) says, “It doesn’t matter.”
Graff has been assigned the task of finding the new Mazer Rackham, the “One” who will defeat the enemy, and since Keanu Reeves is busy making martial arts movies, Graff must seek younger blood. Like 12-year-old Ender Wiggins (a robotic Asa Butterfield), whose two siblings have already been tested for the task and found wanting. Ender’s fratricidal older brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) proved too violent, and his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), with whom Ender has what seems a latent incestuous relationship (Freud would have a field day with his family), is too soft. But Ender is just right; he is empathic enough to think like the bugs, but brutal enough to squash them. Though he might feel kind of bad about it afterwards.
To prepare, Ender goes through a regimen familiar to many middle schoolers: he plays the futuristic equivalent of a Game Boy and gets bullied by a bigger kid when he beats him at it. He puts the bully in the hospital, though he feels kind of bad about it.
Passing that test, Ender advances first to Battle School, where they play a zero-gravity game that looks like an enhanced version of “Tron.” Then it’s off to the inaptly named planet Eros, a former underground Formic base that looks like it was designed by H.R. Giger, of “Alien” (1979) fame. There the Yoda-like Rackham himself offers some appropriately cryptic tips, and Ender and his children’s army of gamers enter the Command Center Battle Simulation Room, a cross between an IMAX planetarium and a Department of Defense drone bay, where the battle simulations become very real indeed.
It comes down to this: Which is more important, the innocence of a child or the survival of the species? And if the race survives, will it just become like the enemy aliens that must be destroyed to do so? This “Game” could have been a tragedy if Hood had given us players to root for. Instead they are just ciphers, and the most human image in the film is an alien’s giant eyes.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.