Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield in "Ender's Game"
Even for a film that stars mostly children, “Ender’s Game” has some different conceptions on what qualifies as “fun.”
In a lofty, enormous warehouse space in New Orleans, there are plots of sets daisy-chained together in overwhelming greys and blacks and muted lights, literally littered with pieces from a “NASA junkyard.” Childrens’ school desks are outfitted with what could be described as 20th generation iPads, seats squatting close to the ground like a 2nd grade classroom. Lockers and bunks are uniformly monochrome, with few personal effects poking out from the grates. These are also small, the doorframes like those for a Hobbit. The proximity of small set to small set make each space as claustrophobic as the next. Also, these are all to live in outer space, mind you: in the future, in space, the floors have an otherworldy curvature.
It’s a coldly military setup for a soldier academy, where Ender Wiggin, his alleys and enemies will learn to battle the enemy – Formics, aka Buggers, who have engaged with Earth in galactic wars before, each side having won an era. The humans are gearing up for their next war, and are using actual children – starting when they’re 6 years old – as their army and commanders, to think outside of the box in battle so that this conflict will be their last. Winner-take all in a species-on-species contest, with pre-adolescents leading the way.
“There’s a device… a bone saw, it’s an actual, a real prototype from a university, it’s just a really crazy thing that they use to perform surgery...”
“I’d take the flashgun. That just sounds super gnarly! That’d be way better than paintballing or something…”
“It’s like a flight simulator where it’s all the switches, it’s a joystick and a screen, and they said it’s the closest you can get to an actual fighter plane…"
“The wires… look super fun, but taking the whole ‘I have to do multiple things at the same time,’ having to be in zero gravity, and if I’m in pain I have to look like I’m not in pain…”
Aramis Knight, Nonso Anozie, Suraj Partha and, of course, our Ender (Asa Butterfield
) are talking about the props and weaponry in Battle School. As part of their characters’ education, they’re thrust into a zero gravity chamber called the Battle Room with practice guns that can paralyze the members of their various teams. In these scenes in Orson Scott Card’s book, it’s also the breeding ground for serious beefs between students, the wick before a bang.
“It’s sort of like ‘Lord of the Flies’ in space, “ says “Ender’s Game” director Gavin Hood
For him and producers like Bob Orci, Linda McDonough and Lynn Hendee, this movie has arrive after 15 years of getting the option, the making-of a beloved sci-fi adaptation with very mature themes and every opportunity to screw it up. For those 15 years, studios have proposed making a very different film than the book: Ender has a love interest, Ender flies actual fighter planes, the ant-like Buggers are presented as “clearly evil” and humans are always good. There are scenes of violence and psychological abuse in “Ender's Game” that would rival some rated R films (thought this will be a PG-13).
“I was in the military, I was drafted when I was 17 years old, and it had a profound affect on me, and when I read Ender’s Game [there was the] feeling that you were very much a number in an organization with strong authority figures that you were not supposed to question, and yet feeling that you wanted to rebel against it,” Hood said.
Some of these authority figures will come from the gruff forms of Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff, Viola Davis as Major Anderson and Ben Kingsley as the mysterious war hero Mazer Rackham. Their physical challenges are few compared to the children’s cast – which also includes “True Grit” star Hailee Steinfeld
as Petra – who in addition to going to NASA space camp, they learned judo, akido, sparring, wire work, took military training and learned cadences, were “punished” with pushups and sit-ups. But, hey, they also get to fly down a zip line.
“So often, there are many films and they’re fantastic and they’re fun and they’re wonderful, but it’s like ‘That was great, do you want to get pizza?’ As opposed to a story like ‘Ender’s Game,‘ where kids really talk about it, [questions like] ‘Is that right?,’ ‘Is he too violent?’ and these are important conversations for young people to engage in, in an exciting way,” Hood said. “And if you can deliver that kind of debate and conversation in an exciting, visually powerful way, then I think you’re getting a little more than just spectacle. If we can combine spectacle with a good old-fashioned argument afterwards, then that’s kind of fun.”
That word again.
That’s one you could use for Asa Butterfield’s breakout, in “Hugo,” in which he builds a fantastical, cinematic plot around Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès. The two will have another master-and-protégé relationship in “Ender’s Game,” though each disposition will be far from the meek, gentle characters from Scorsese’s 2011 3-D film.
Butterfield’s delicate features are situated in such a way on his crystalline skin that his age is hard to pin down. He’s like anime. Ender’s journey in the book begins around age 6; Butterfield’s going to be playing a solder roughly twice that age and then some, with his tenure taking place over an unspecified time. The Brit learned an American accent for the part, though at time he’ll be a “man” of few words.
“Ender is pretty up there in terms of ideal characters for any 14-, 15 year-old boy. Of course it would still be pretty cool to be James Bond, but this is definitely up there,” Butterfield said on set. He had just finished explaining the tight flash suits, and his training regimen. Perhaps a “Bond” role wouldn’t be so unimaginable. “I wanted to appeal to the massive cult that already follows ‘Ender's Game.”
The cult of “Ender” has developed, in part, because of the realistic scenes depicting empirialism, bullying and fear, being the smallest kid in a group of young boys who want to be grown men, physically and metaphorically. There are scenes of violence that Butterfield’s Ender endures that would easily break your average child.
In terms of adults getting kids to do their violence for them, McDonough saw some similarities to the “Hunger Games” franchise.
“It was exciting for us just in terms of seeing [‘Hunger Games’] marketed so successfully and widely when it deals with issues of violence and younger people because that, historically, has been one of the big challenges, [one of the] reasons why this film hasn't gotten made,” she said. “It's not a family film in the way that an animated DreamWorks movie is. And if we tried to do that, which some people would argue has better box office presence, I think we would betray, fundamentally, the themes of the movie.”
Butterfield’s physical elegance and intelligence will be further revealed in the Mind Games, the virtual reality game the children play in order to learn problem solving skills. Those motion-captured scenes promise some of the most brilliant, more colorful and adventurous visual imagery of the movie, but is also an expression of the more disturbing scenery. Ender plays his Mind Game in from of classmate Alai, and executes an assault in the game so graphic, his comrade is practically forced to ask, “Why did you do that??”
“In the movie, that’s a pretty visceral experience… given that this is PG-13. It’s that moment when that awkwardness from that little act tells you volumes in an unspoken way: [Ender] says ‘That’s what they want from us here. Choose violence, you win. I’m just like my brother Peter,’” Hood explained.
“You probably experience [violence] even more [from] watching the actor, the emotional anguish that he has over those moments of regret and pain and struggling with those two sides of his nature represented by Peter and [his sister] Valentine… violence with a compassion and always torn by which choice he's going to make,” McDonough said.
“In the book, when you read, it's one thing. But when you audition the kids and you hear those little tiny kid voices, it affects how you look at the whole film, the credibility,” Hendee said. “It’s kind of funny.”
"Ender's Game" is in theaters on Nov. 1.