Of All the Failed Attempts to Start Young Adult Franchises, One Dystopian Sci-Fi Showed Particular Promise
Harrison Ford and a classic sci-fi novel. What could go wrong?
Of all the microtrends Hollywood has been through, one of the most memorable and fascinating was the 2010s’ wave of dystopian chosen one adaptations. In the wake of Harry Potter and the sudden success of The Hunger Games, reams of movies attempted to replicate the formula of a young child plucked from obscurity to save the world. The Giver, The Maze Runner, and Divergent all tried to replicate the magic of their predecessors... and they all failed.
But one movie brought a fresh twist to this subgenre by moving it to the world of hard science fiction. It remains a great watch a decade later, even if it didn’t earn the legacy it deserved.
Ender’s Game, based on the book by Orson Scott Card, follows young cadet Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) as he catches the attention of Colonel Hyram Graff (Harrison Ford). In a world where all children must attend military school, Ender’s cool and calm demeanor, paired with his willingness to employ startling aggression when called for, sees him brought to an advanced training school where he quickly climbs the ranks. And, in an institution full of swaggering machismo, it soon becomes apparent that Ender’s greatest strength is his empathy.
Graff and hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) see Ender through a series of simulations that test his strategic thinking and emotional stability, hoping to groom him to defeat the Formics, a civilization of bug-like aliens that attacked Earth and present an existential threat to humanity. But his success comes at a massive price, one that Ender instantly regrets.
At first glance, the movie feels like a Harry Potter ripoff mixed with Starship Troopers, but it’s far more than that. It makes smart use of its sci-fi setting, from immersing viewers with fictional lingo to portraying space combat that feels like it actually takes place in space, with everything the third dimension brings.
It also does something sci-fi stories rarely do: show genuine remorse for violent acts. Much like in fellow Chosen One story WarGames, the only way to win is not to play. Sure, the plot can be a little formulaic, but there’s nothing wrong with playing the genre hits if it’s done well and adds a twist or two.
Unfortunately, despite breaking even at the box office, Ender’s Game never secured the franchise it should have been given. Lionsgate — the same studio behind The Hunger Games — threw its whole weight behind the project, even casting Harrison Ford to harness some star power. But it wasn’t enough, and while there were rumors of a sequel script, Ender’s Game became just another failed attempt to create the next big young adult adventure series.
In the decade since its release, Ender’s Game has become the perfect distillation of 2013 cinema. There’s the ambition to tell an epic story, young actors who have since become megastars, and CGI that somehow looks better than the CGI being used today. With a new Hunger Games movie hitting theaters this month, it’s clear the dystopian chosen one trend hasn’t completely ended. If you need more, you could do worse than look to the stars.