For director Gavin Hood, “Ender’s Game” stands somewhere between his Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”: a heady sci-fi adventure about the dehumanizing impact of violent video games and simulated warfare on our youth. Throw in the hot topic of drones, and you could say that time has definitely caught up with Orson Scott Card’s acclaimed futuristic novel.
“As a parent, you bring your children into this world and they’re faced with massive, accelerating technology,” Hood admits. “They watch war on screen in real-time on CNN that is video game-like, and they have video games that are increasingly realistic about war. And this blurring of game and reality is quite disturbing, and drone warfare is the ultimate expression of video game playing. I have twins that are six and it’s exciting and frightening to see how they’ve picked up the new tech.”
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No wonder Hood was so taken with the compelling story of the adolescent Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who has become a heroic icon to millions. He wields power among his student peers in Battle School through a keen understanding of human nature while mastering advanced computer simulations like a preternatural wizard. However, constant bullying from being a social outcast and the pressure of being the world savior prays on his soul.
Thus, it’s a tug of war between violence and compassion for Ender and what fascinates Hood. “What I try to do is seduce the audience with beautiful visual effects into a world where, when you play that final game, it’s really fun and you’re getting a thrill and you want to win with Ender.”
But at what moral cost? There are certainly tactical advantages to simulated warfare in a world where survival comes first and individual needs are secondary, which Harrison Ford’s manipulative Col. Graff emphasizes. But in a story that explores lies, betrayal, and genocide, what’s the end game?
“The real point of the movie is not to dictate some policy to society — that’s something that has got to evolve. It’s how are you, Ender Wiggin, taking personal responsibility for your actions? But his reaction to being totally duped is interesting. His ego is deeply invested in proving himself. Asa wanted to be humble about an important victory. I said the problem with that is he needs to be as caught up in his victory as the audience. Ender is human — he’s not some perfect role model. He’s a kid with a capacity for violence beyond what he should use. And his journey is to find that balance. And in a sense, that’s all of our journey.”
Yet Hood’s filmmaking journey was made easier thanks to the early involvement of Digital Domain 3.0, the Oscar-winning VFX studio (“Benjamin Button”) and co-producer (now owned by Sun Innovation of Hong Kong and India’s Reliance MediaWorks). Storyboarding and previs during pre-production enabled the director to realize his vision of a Command School Simulator, zero gravity Battle Room, and final battle with the insect-like aliens called the Formics.
Hood wanted a grand, interactive space for Ender and his classmates, which was part of the seductive eye candy he referred to. “First, it was all about designing the Battle School and then putting it onto three-dimensional environments, figuring out the scale and distances and where the stars would be, and then creating little animated space kids that could fly around in that room at the correct proportions and velocities. And in the meantime, I sent actors to train with Cirque du Soleil to become as fluid as possible on wires so as much of the action could be captured live.
“And then you blend real photography with the virtual environment that you’re creating in parallel with it,” Hood adds.
Lack of communication is another crucial theme of the movie, yet, ironically, Hood suggests that great communication with his colleagues helped pull off “Ender’s Game.”
“In a way, the movie’s about what makes good leadership. It’s someone who’s decisive but also a really good listener and compassionate. It’s balancing all of these elements and in a much less twisted way than war. I hope that what we’ve done with ‘Ender’s Game’ is deliver something that is visually fun for a young audience and their parents to watch, and then have something to talk about afterwards.”
Indeed, that’s what separates “Ender’s Game” from many of its bigger-budgeted and less provocative studio rivals.