Verdict: This is a pretty good movie. I recommend it.
“Ender’s Game” is a movie about war and children. Set in the distant future, humanity has barely survived an attack by a vastly superior alien enemy, almost entirely due to luck and good timing. The aliens look and act like giant bugs, and their faces fill the nightmares of Earth’s children every night. And maybe not just the children. The thought of a second bug invasion scares the pants off Earth’s leaders so they are doing everything imaginable to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Their primary strategy is to recruit and train children to fight their battles for them. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and Harrison Ford, who leads the training program, is firmly convinced that they are going to need some new tricks if they want to beat the bugs a second time. The child’s mind is quicker and more supple than the adult’s; it assimilates new information more quickly and is not clogged with a lot of unnecessary , unhelpful “conventional wisdom.” This creates an interesting paradox for the adults: they must figure out how to equip the kids with the training and know-how to fight, without indoctrinating them with useless paradigms that will just turn them into the adults. Earth’s next, and biggest war, is going to be fought by six-year olds.
Well, maybe not six-year olds. In Orson Scott Card’s wildly popular novel, the characters are six years old at the beginning, and ten by the time they finish their training. But the novel was published in 1985, and I think it’s taken this long for a film adaptation to make it to the theaters because we don’t really want to watch six-year olds kill each other. But I think a number of recent films, including the Harry Potter franchise, the Hunger Games, and Chloe Grace Moretz’ performance in “Kick-Ass” have desensitized us to violence done by and against children, paving the way for “Ender’s Game” (which, for whatever it’s worth, is not anywhere near as gleefully, graphically violent as “Kick-Ass.”) Nonetheless, director Gavin Hood has decided to age the characters a bit. Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender, was fifteen during filming. Some of the kids around him — especially his two enemies, look even older. One one hand, I’m thankful for this, because I really don’t want to watch six-year olds (kids the age of Quevanzhane Wallis during the filming of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) kill each other. On the other hand, I think Card made them so young on purpose; it was supposed to be disturbing to the reader, and that edge is significantly blunted in the movie, allowing it to be a lot more like “Starship Troopers” — a big, entertaining popcorn movie — than its author intended.
And it is big and entertaining. The visual effects are great, especially a couple of scene in the Battle Room, a zero gravity environment where the recruits learn to fight each other while floating in space. The Battle Room is surrounded by windows, so they (and we) can see blue, beautiful Earth floating just beneath them as they train. It’s definitely a fun movie to watch, right up until its final moments, when the deeper themes that have been hinted at finally, forcefully overcome its shoot ‘em up nature.
Harrison Ford believes that Ender is the one because he is the perfect balance of empathy and ruthlessness. Ender is the third child in a world where only two are allowed without special permission from the government; he was allowed to exist because his two older siblings came close but ultimately fell short of Ford’s standards: his brother Peter was too ruthless and relied on violence too much, while his sister Valentine was too soft and empathetic. (Following the pattern set by Card, the film has some issues with gender stereotypes.) Ender is the perfect balance; empathetic enough to anticipate his enemies’ moves, but ruthless enough to destroy him anyway.
Except…maybe not. Ender is the chosen one because he is better than his elders, and before very long, he begins to question the rhetoric and propaganda his elders are feeding him, and all of the other trainees, and everyone on Earth. Why does the propaganda video cut out at the moment it does? What happens after that, and why is it classified information? Is it really impossible to communicate with the bugs? Is this really an “us or them” scenario, or could diplomacy be an option? If it is us or them, why, in the fifty years since the last attack, have the bugs not attempted a second attack? Is a preëmptive strike against their home planet, amounting to genocide, really the only way to secure Earth’s safety?
The very qualities that led Ford to recruit Ender, and his peers, very nearly backfires against him in a revolutionary way. Ford and the Powers That Be know that their old, indoctrinated minds and methods can’t come up with the battle strategies needed to defeat the bugs. But perhaps the thinking of the older generation is broken even more than they know: these kids, and their fresh minds, might be capable of more than new battle strategies. Perhaps they’re capable of a new way of thinking that makes battle strategies themselves obsolete.
Because this is a big, fun action movie, playing in giant theaters on enormous screens while audiences eat popcorn and guzzle soda, we, the audience, essentially buy into the political propaganda of Ford and his superiors. We think like they do; we want big battles, and we get them. Ender’s discomfort with annihilating an enemy he has come to understand and even love doesn’t equate to discomfort for us. Movies about diplomacy rarely get made, and never make money. And so the revelation at the end (it doesn’t quite qualify as a twist) lands like a sledgehammer, if you’ll let it. I heartily suggest that you do.
“Ender’s Game” is the first in a series of four books about Andrew Wiggin, which means that if this film performs well, a new franchise is born. I hope that happens. The second, “Speaker for the Dead,” finds Wiggin as sort of an anti-Ender; instead of planning battle strategies, he is a peacemaker and a storyteller. Card has declared “Speaker” unfilmable, but I said that about “Ender’s Game” until a few years ago, so there’s hope. Heaven knows we need more movies about peacemakers.