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War games

Sci-fi adaptation softens tale of brilliant boy turned into a space soldier

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Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin (above and below left with Ford’s gruff Graff) in Ender’s Game.

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Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin (above and below left with Ford’s gruff Graff) in Ender’s Game.

In retrospect, one might have suspected Orson Scott Card's bestselling science-fiction novel Ender's Game had the potential to become a flashpoint in the realm of gay rights.

Mightn't careful readers have inferred a certain subliminal hostility at work in the story of young boys (and the occasional girl) training to do battle against a predatory alien race referred to as "buggers?"

Of course, the more salient reason for controversy has to do with Mormon author Card's strident opposition to gay marriage. That issue distressed the filmmakers behind the movie version of Ender's Game, who were eager to distance themselves from Card's bristling hostility to gay-marriage advocacy. Certainly, that might explain why the word "buggers," so prevalent in the novel, is not heard in the film. (The praying mantis-like aliens are referred to only as "Formics.")

Other alterations from novel to screen are more a matter of expediency. While the novel starts when our hero is just six years old, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is pretty much already a teenager when he enters the orbiting Battle School. He has been recruited by the gruff Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) after Graff witnesses Ender's ruthless but effective handing of a school bully. Graff sees in the skinny, dewy-eyed youth a potential leader in an impending battle with the Formics, after earthlings barely survived their surprise invasion 50 years earlier.

Graff keeps pressure on the brilliant, troubled Ender, praising his intellect in front of the other jealous students and subjecting him to ever more punishing challenges, in which he must prove his leadership skills.

Ender gains friends anyway, including kindly fellow recruit Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and the feisty punk Bean (Aramis Knight). He must also prevail over bullies, notably a platoon leader named Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias), whose notions of leadership are tied up in ego, arrogance and violence.

Speaking of overcoming challenges, screenwriter-director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) does very good work rendering the novel's universe on film, particularly in regards to the zero-gravity battle room where the beleaguered Ender finally gets to demonstrate his tactical genius. These scenes are nicely realized.

Hood also avoids simplifying the final outcome of the battle. For the smart, sensitive Ender, victory has the potential of being the greatest trauma of all, and Hood doesn't shy away from that fact.

Still, the overall film fails to make a deep impact. This is a story about a child soldier, a boy cruelly manipulated by adults to serve as a killer. That -- not gay marriage -- is the real-world issue the movie should address.

But one does not walk away from Ender's Game with a so much as a prickle of outrage. This is largely due to the casting of Ford as Graff, a character that should have been more of a bastard. Ford has so often been cast as the practical man of action (Patriot Games, Air Force One) that his star persona mitigates what should be seen as contemptible behaviour.

Also, when you put Ford in space, you can't help but cut him slack: call it the Han Solo Effect.

If the filmmakers were going to have any sway over the organized boycott of Ender's Game, their best strategy would have been to make a must-see movie. That is one mission Ender Wiggin does not quite accomplish.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2013 D1

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