One of the British TV ads for the upcoming film Ender’s Game (released in the U.S. Nov. 1), sees one of those typical movie trailer voiceover guys describe it as “Harry Potter meets Star Wars”, apparently a quote from a critic, and one that the film’s marketing department were no doubt delighted to discover. After all, for a sci-fi movie with a teenage cast, a favorable comparison to two of the biggest (and most kid-friendly) franchises of all time must be marketing gold dust. As a fan of the book, however, it struck me as a slightly odd description. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a Star Wars fan as the next card-carrying geek, though admittedly I’m not mad about my Potter, but despite the world’s devotion, neither of these franchises are actually thoughtful, insightful, even philosophical — and yet that’s exactly how I’d describe Ender’s Game. (The novel by Orson Scott Card, on which the film is based, that is. For all I know, the film has stripped all this stuff out, so take what I say with a pinch of salt).

Without giving too much away (everyone deserves to experience it unspoiled), the book tackles themes as complex as child soldiers, the burden of war, the causes — and justifiability — of conflict, drone warfare, and more. It’s a sci-fi war novel. Admittedly, it’s one featuring a child protagonist, and written so as to be at least accessible to that slightly nebulous ‘young adult’ market, but it tackles a little bit more than how totally evil the absurdly evil Darth Vader is, or why it isn’t very nice to kill a baby’s parents using forbidden curses, even if you are a wizard. I know, I know, I’m probably being unfair on Star Wars and Harry Potter here, and I don’t really want to suggest that they’re totally brainless — just mostly. And that’s fine! Not everything, and certainly not everything that’s designed to be family friendly, needs to feel the need to tackle life’s big questions or ponder moral quandaries, but it seems worth celebrating Ender’s Game as the rare bit of “kids” media that really does give it a go.

Within the story, the titular Ender (played by Asa Butterfield in the film) is recruited to Battle School from a young age, trained to become a potential officer in the war against an alien threat whose name is really too silly to repeat here.* From the start, he’s bullied by fellow students and manipulated by staff, all in the hope that if put through sufficient hardship he’ll develop into the next leader of the fleet. Among other things, the book continually discusses the question of whether or not it’s acceptable to trick, manipulate, and basically just torture a small child on the off chance that they might help save humanity. Cheery stuff, then.

Perhaps the best recent comparison is actually to last year’s hit The Hunger Games, which saw a similar mix of action and introspection — though with a much heavier romantic element than the more male-focused Ender’s Game. It’s this sort of depth that was missing from recent flops like the Percy Jackson films or the recent The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. The fact that The Hunger Games did so bloody well will no doubt serve as some comfort to Ender’s Game‘s producers (Summit Entertainment, who just suffered the enormous flop of Escape Plan). They no doubt cast Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley in an effort to lure in an older crowd to match the younger audience. And, fingers crossed, there really will be something there for adults. Kids will love it for the whooshy CGI space fights, adults will appreciate the interesting and provocative ideas at work. Oh, and the whooshy CGI space fights too, let’s be honest here.

*OK, fine, fine. They’re called the “Buggers”. I’ll just leave that there.

While waiting for Ender’s Game to be released Nov. 1, load up on classic sci fi on Sci-Fi Telly via FilmOn:

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