Ender’s Game

Posted on November 4, 2013 by


Enders GameOrson Scott Card wrote Ender’s Game in 1985. The novel quickly entered the science fiction canon, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and Card joined luminaries like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and Dick. Bringing Ender’s Game to film presented many challenges. After nearly 30 years in the development wilderness, technology finally caught up to Card’s conceptions. Computer generated images are sufficient now to replicate the book’s key elements.

Though technology solved the visual riddle, Card’s politics have been the film’s latest obstacle. Orson Scott Card is a devout Mormon who, until recently, sat on the board of the National Organization for Marriage. He has been public about his traditional beliefs, arguing for laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman. As the culture has shifted around him, Card’s outspokenness has drawn criticism. DC Comics is working with Card to develop a Superman series and it has found itself under duress ever since. Ender’s Game has inspired a boycott movement and many critics are bringing up Card’s political positions in their reviews. Card is, in many ways, guilty of one the two sins with which Hollywood is still concerned, and for this trespass, he should expect neither grace nor forgiveness.

(For an interesting comparison, scan movie reviews of Roman Polanski’s recent film Carnage to see how many critics mentioned that Polanski is wanted for the rape of an underage girl. For apples to apples, here is Clint O’Connor’s (from the Cleveland Plain Dealer) review of Ender’s Game, which references Card’s position on marriage, and his review of Carnage, which ignores Polanski’s alleged rape.)

While Card’s politics have eclipsed the film in some ways, that is unfortunate, for Ender’s Game, like other things, deserves to be viewed on its own merits. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is evidence of humanity’s desperation. Some fifty years before Wiggin’s birth, earth was invaded by an insect-like enemy called the Formics.* Only the nerve and quick thinking of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) saves the human race from destruction. Since the initial invasion, the world’s citizens have formed the International Fleet to defend against the next invasion. It appears that human life has been oriented around the alien threat. The I.F. has unquestioned authority and unlimited resources and it uses both to keep citizens in fear.

Most critically, the I.F. is searching for its next great commander, but not among seasoned military officers. Convinced they need to train people to think differently so they might counter the Formics, who behave unlike any human enemy, the IMF identifies and trains extraordinary children. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) is convinced Ender Wiggin is humanity’s best, and maybe last, chance. Taken from his family, Wiggin joins other “launchies” in the Battle School, where students learn to be soldiers, with the hope that some will emerge as elite commanders. The education is applied in the battle room, where students are grouped into armies to fight simulated combat in a zero-gravity environment. Wiggin’s brilliance as an unconventional leader earns the respect of some soldiers and the mortal jealousy of others. Colonel Graff, who views every element of Wiggin’s education, generally from afar, wants to be sure that Wiggin can handle any eventuality, including the absence of teachers and other authority figures. Once satisfied, Graff sends Wiggin to command school, where he is trained by Mazer Rackham himself. To say more about the plot would be unfair, but Wiggin is pushed to his physical and moral limits and the audience goes along for the visually striking ride.

Gavin Hood, who directs the film and adapted the screenplay, orchestrates stirring special effects, especially in the battle room, and gets strong performances from his cast. Butterfield invests Wiggin with the right balance of youthful innocence and unfathomable genius. More than anything, for the film to work, Ender must appear vulnerable, and he does. Ford’s Graff is slightly under-developed, though he is effective in the role. The supporting roles are equally strong, with Viola Davis’ Major Anderson attempting to balance Graff’s willingness to push Ender beyond reasonable boundaries. Ender’s friends are largely forgettable outside of Hailee Steinfeld’s Petra Arkanian. Steinfeld continues to impress, appearing as comfortable toting pistols in True Grit (for which she earned an Oscar nomination) as she does bearing space weaponry here. Another prominent child actress, Abigail Breslin plays Wiggin’s sister Valentine. Their relationship keeps Ender moored to humanity.

Ender’s Game, like the best science fiction, provokes viewers. Though not necessarily subtle, the film asks hard questions. Perhaps most importantly, the relationship between means and ends is examined. At what point is the end of victory justified by the means on display here? Ender Wiggin is isolated, deceived, and stripped of his family so that he might become what he is needed to be. Lost in the midst of those who seek to fashion him is Wiggin himself, who becomes a tool, perhaps the best ever constructed. While few would dispute the end of species survival, Ender’s Game implies the means used here destroy the very qualities that make us human.

FINAL GRADE: 2/3 Eggheads

*In the novel, the alien foes were called Buggers often and repeatedly. That reference is conspicuously absent from the film.

Posted in: Movie Review