Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis
Rated: PG-13, for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material
Runtime: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Bottom line: More than bad, it’s irresponsible
Now that the incredibly lucrative “Twilight” series has gone dark, Summit Entertainment hopes to replace it with another franchise adapted from a popular series of young adult novels: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series.
It’s a standard trope of young adult fiction to place the fate of the world in the hands of a teenage character. We accept it as a convention of the genre as long as the backstory convinces us to suspend our disbelief.
I didn’t buy into the premise of “Ender’s Game” for a moment.
Fifty years after narrowly defending Earth against alien “Buggers,” the military establishment of the planet is preparing for another battle, and is looking for someone to lead the entire army against the aliens.
And they’re going to choose a 12-year-old to command that army? To devise a strategy and make tactical adjustments during battle while adult army commanders look on silently?
Ender (Asa Butterfield), the title character and inevitable choice for commander, isn’t a supernatural prodigy chosen by prophecy. He isn’t protected and strengthened by the ghosts of his forebears. Nor is he just one of many soldiers who pulls off a miraculous feat during battle.
We are asked to believe Earth’s military would protect the planet by systematically training a preteen Patton who will command an army of tweens who have never experienced real warfare.
It’s simply not believable, even for young adult science fiction.
The casting doesn’t help, either. Butterfield, who played the title character in “Hugo,” is a promising young actor. But at 16, he is thin as a bamboo stalk. He does not offer an authoritative presence beyond his years.
Even if we buy into this young boy’s fantasy, “Ender’s Game” suffers from numerous other problems.
Ender must earn his position as commander by leading his teen team through a series of battle simulations against other teams.
Most of the movie plays out like a video game being played by someone else. Each battle sequence is one level of the game, all held together by a very thin storyline. It becomes exceedingly tedious.
It’s also relentlessly militaristic. Perhaps the preteen boys for whom this movie is made will get a charge out of seeing kids being trained to ruthlessly defeat each other in the simulations, but I found it disturbing.
The kids eagerly grow into the remorseless warriors their trainers want them to be, without ever considering what real battle will be like.
Forgive the obscure reference, but the movie reminded me of the infamous World War II-era Disney animated short “Education for Death,” which chronicles how a normal, empathetic German boy named Hans is raised to become a lethal cog in the Nazi war machine. The film inspires in the viewer a conflicted mix of sympathy and hatred for Hans. It isn’t his fault the Nazi regime molds him into a killer, yet he becomes revolting and barely human.
Similarly, it isn’t Ender’s fault he grows up in a thoroughly militarized society. Yet he so eagerly accepts his fate and is so naturally suited to ruling his peers and destroying his enemies that he is rather detestable.
It should give nothing away to say that Ender eventually will learn a lesson about empathy and the costs of real warfare. This humanistic message is greatly undercut, though, by how much death Ender causes and how violent he becomes before he reaches his epiphany.
One of the inevitable impacts of successful young adult novels and movies is that young viewers idolize the protagonist to some degree. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that young girls recently became interested in bows and arrows.
So will the boys who see “Ender’s Game” understand they should not view Ender as a role model as he slays one enemy after another, when the movie spends less than 15 minutes exploring Ender’s peaceful side and around 100 minutes showing him as a Napoleonic destroyer?
Even if he were mature enough to see this PG-13 movie, I wouldn’t allow my son to see “Ender’s Game.”
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.