Review: Ender's Game
Long before Stephenie Meyer’s fundamentally conservative young-adult fantasy franchise, there existed fellow Mormon Orson Scott Card’s Ender saga. A short story that has evolved into a series of 16 (soon to be 17) books, Ender’s Game (the original 1985 novel) is by turns bullied-nerd wish fulfillment, Objectivist wet dream, and a replay of the Christ story. Streamlining the plot-heavy trajectory of the novel, the fundamental message remains: whatever happens, it’s never the protagonist’s fault.
Fifty years after an alien-race attack (by the Formic, also called “buggers”) leaves several million people dead, a global military organization called the International Fleet begins recruiting and training grade- and middle-school children in anticipation of the buggers’ return. The IF takes only children because they are better than adults at adapting to technology and battle scenarios, which is enough to wave aside any ethical issues that training the young for war might raise. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a highly intelligent student in the IF academy, is selected to advance to command school after Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) witnesses him beating up an older kid. Ender kicks the bully while he’s down, something he has conflicted feelings about. (In the book, the boy dies from internal bleeding; here, he “only” goes to the hospital in one of the film’s many moments of softening Ender’s character.) “I wanted to make sure that he never came back, that it was the last fight,” Ender sadly but confidently explains to Graff and his parents.
This sentiment, as well as the philosophical questions that go along with it, are repeated several times throughout the film. Like all great science fiction, Ender’s Game isn’t about explosions but ideas, many of which have grown more relevant in our post-9/11, post-Afghanistan and Iraq, surveillance-heavy, video-game-saturated and drone-warfare world. Ender’s talents for fighting are innate and unprecedented (giving weight to the Rand and Christian savior complexes), which alternately isolates him and turns him into the leader Graff so eagerly desires. In one of the film’s eeriest scenes, Ender plays “the mind game,” which allows the command school’s psychologist (Viola Davis) to witness how he deals with his stress. Ender’s avatar—a small mouse—is presented by a booming giant with the choice of two cups—one poison, one sweet ambrosia that will take him to fairyland. After choosing the wrong one twice, Ender has his mouse jump into the giant’s eye, killing him. This delights Graff but horrifies the psychologist, who reminds Ender that her job is not merely to gauge who will be the best killer, but to put these soldiers back together again once the war is over. It’s a brief but powerful moment that equally damns Graff and the United States’ longstanding tendency to “support our troops” but fail its veterans.
The interplay between game and reality becomes even more complicated when Ender is sent for further “training” at a remote military outpost (after accidentally putting another bully in a coma), where he is exposed to more secrets and the untrustworthy nature of the adults around him. Standing like a conductor in front of an orchestra, Ender wages war against the buggers, his exquisite strength for destruction always increasing. The story’s final twist isn’t spelled out, and neither are its implications—a strategy that could be seen as respecting the audience’s intelligence or glossing over the worst of Ender’s actions.
Although writer/director Gavin Hood only met with Card once during pre-production, his script is an expertly structured story that hits the right beats, and never too hard. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with the politics of the film or its writer, it exemplifies the best of blockbuster filmmaking. Ender’s Game is a truly beautiful film, in which even minor shots (such as a ship transporting Ender to command school) are breathtaking. The battle scenes aren’t rip-roaring and fun but complicated and mildly anxiety-inducing. (The buggers attack in formations that appear random to humans, something that is reflected in the panoramic simulations that are designed for the zero-gravity, three dimensions of space.) In part due to Card’s unabashedly hostile statements about homosexuality (leading many to boycott the film entirely), long dialogue scenes, and lack of a happy ending, Ender’s Game will likely have no sequel, which is fine—it’s a problematic work that can stand on its own.