It seems that making movies about children making war against each other is becoming a fad.
That probably makes me sound like a pessimistic grouch. Let me start over.
A lot of people are probably going to compare Ender’s Game to The Hunger Games, saying that these movies are making money through society’s depraved sense of entertainment at the expense of children being made into killing machines.
They would be wrong.
As to The Hunger Games, you can read my review of the book here. I’ll admit that there might be an argument there as much as I may disagree with it, but that’s far from a valid criticism of Ender’s Game. In fact, if anything, it’s doing just the opposite.
The movie, based on the 1985 book of the same name, tell the story of a boy named Ender Wiggin. Years before, an alien species called the Formics invaded Earth. They were able to drive the aliens out, but Earth is preparing for another war against them, and Ender is recruited for that purpose, as are other boys his age. Ender is a brilliant protégé, and the movie tells the story of his rise through the ranks, and his exposure to the war.
The film’s focus is around an encounter Ender has early in the movie with a bully. Ender is small and weak, but is able to knock the other boy down. Once he does, he doesn’t immediately leave, but continues kicking the boy. The military then comes to his home to recruit him. When asked why he kept kicking, he said he was winning all of the next fights, to ensure that he’d leave him alone. It is on that basis, we find, that Earth is going against the Formics.
Ender’s days in Battle School and subsequently Command School are tough and unpleasant. He manages to find friends in Bean and Petra, but much of his time is spent figuring out how to survive amidst the others, many of whom fashion themselves soldiers in the most brutal of fashions. The most notable of these is Bonzo, who threatens to kill Ender if he makes a fool out of him. It’s easy to see that he isn’t exaggerating.
In any other story like this, the main character would quickly morph into a sociopath, cold and completely devoid of anything resembling a conscience. You might think that one would have to become that in order to survive such an environment, that otherwise one would become gum under the shoes of the many oppressors. This isn’t any other story, however. Ender’s conscience remains completely intact. In fact, he tells his sister Valentine, who is played brilliantly by Abigail Breslin, that in that moment when he truly understands his enemy, he thinks that he loves them.
Far from being without conscience, this poor kid loves his enemies, and then has to destroy them. It rips his soul open every time he engages in battle. Yet he’s in military training. This story is not about being entertained by children going for each other’s throats, but instead is a contemplation on the amoral missions of the military. Major Anderson, the psychologist watching Ender, becomes concerned about this. Colonel Graff, played brilliantly by Harrison Ford, comes to a disagreement with her. Anderson cautions that there may be nothing left of Ender by the time they’re done, to which Graff responds “So what if there isn’t?!” Graff, initially portrayed as a friendly patriot looking out for Ender’s well-being, reveals himself to be a heartless commander, who thrives on vilifying the enemy. “We won!” he tells Ender after a high-stakes battle. “That’s all that matters!” “No!” Ender says. “How we win matters!”
In a time where the conceptual pure evil of the enemy justifies acts of the most heinous fashion, Ender stands out as the brilliant military protégé who doesn’t go along with the system. He doesn’t buy the propaganda. He is a rebel because he gives the benefit of the doubt. He is a rebel because, in a very real way, he loves his enemy.
That’s an anthem for the modern Christian if there ever was one.
So do we see a young man who’s unable to gather followers? Whose lack of anger, angst, and brutality makes him stick out like a sore thumb? On the contrary, Bean and Petra follow him with unwavering loyalty. They aren’t the only ones. Even Bernard, who initially is opposed to Ender, becomes one of his most trusted soldiers. Together they make an unstoppable team, especially in the zero-gravity games, which occupy a decent amount of the story, and make for some of the coolest action sequences in the movie.
The science fiction elements, including the touch-screen technology, space environments, and futuristic uniforms, could make the film less accessible, broaching the fantastical genres that spend too much time on visuals and forget about the message. That doesn’t happen here. We have no doubt at the end of the movie where Ender stands. He was brought in as a soldier, but at the end he is an advocate of peace. This is a movie, a universe that we ought to dive into headfirst, because this isn’t the kind of worldview that comes through secular entertainment very often.
Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.