Who are the villains in the new SF adventure film ENDER’S GAME?
If you answered the “Formics”, commonly known as the “buggers”, you’re only half right. Yes, the ant-like creatures from another planet did attack the Earth a generation before the beginning of the film, destroying cities and killing millions. The buggers are held up as a constant threat to young Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, achingly vulnerable) and his fellow cadets in the Battle School. They’re coming back, the cadets are told. We have to be ready to destroy them before they destroy us.
How convenient for the military leaders in charge of training the future commanders of the space fleet that will meet this threat that Ender instinctively understands a fundamental rule of engagement: It is not enough to beat your enemy this time. You must crush him for all time. That is their plan for the buggers, and Ender is just the man, er, child to accomplish it.
How do they know? Because Ender—too small, too smart, too socially awkward—is a victim of bullies. Pushed too far, he ends his torment. Permanently. Instead of helping him, by providing him with protection, say, or encouraging his attempts to form connections with others, his teacher/commanders isolate him and applaud his killer instincts.
In what seems to be the Battle School’s go-to educational methodology, military leaders Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), Major Anderson (Viola Davis) and eventually even the hero of the last war against the Formics, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), toss Ender in the equivalent of a deep pool to see if he can swim. When he doesn’t drown, and indeed builds a battleship, they promote him, over and over again. They ensure that he makes enemies, who then attack him. When he survives all of this, outwitting them again and again, and finally refuses to play their manipulative games, they bring up the heavy guns, calling on his sister, the only person he’s ever loved, to pressure him into re-engaging.
Ah, but you say, it’s all in a good cause. The ends justify the means. Those nasty buggers are poised to attack Earth again, and when they do, they’ll destroy us! Ender Wiggin is the last hope of Earth. If he can’t do what his teachers are preparing him to do, no one can—and Earth is doomed. It is the same thing every young soldier is told in the brutal crucible of boot camp—if you don’t do as we tell you, if you don’t follow orders, you will die, your buddies will die, the mission will fail. No one expects them to question what the mission is or whether it is necessary. That is for someone further up the line.
The problem is, Ender, though he is very young, is no child. And his intelligence is not limited to strategy and tactics. He is also highly empathetic, a quality that he is forced to hide in Battle School, though it is a key to his success. (He is able to “think” like his opponents.) He begins to question the mission. And doubt begins to invade his dreams, in visions of the Formic queen and his sister, Valentine. By the time Ender wins his final game, his sympathies are no longer clear, and neither are ours. He, and we, are horrified by the results. Who is the enemy now?
Director Gavin Hood’s film does an excellent job of translating Orson Scott Card’s 1985 Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel to the screen, thanks largely to Card’s involvement as a screenwriter. In some ways—in the dream sequences, for example—the film is better, clearer, more explicit. Some of the longer passages of time while Ender moves through years of school, with the attendant small steps in growth he attains, have been accelerated and condensed for the screen. Purists will gripe at this. Nothing is lost, though, really. And, of course, the effects are spectacular, letting us see the Battle Room where Ender and his “armies” fight in zero-G and the final, decisive “game” between the buggers and Ender’s fleet.
Some reviewers have complained that there are not enough of the final space battle-type scenes in the movie. They miss the point. The film is not about the battles. It is about the battle going on within Ender. It is about the battle that should be going on within all of us, to decide not how the fight should be won, but whether it should be fought at all. Not whether the ends justify the means, but whether the end itself is justified. But that is not a popular point of view in this time of constant undeclared war against unseen enemies.
That source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, says that Card’s novel is suggested reading for many military organizations, including the U.S. Marine Corps. One wonders what the military commanders of the USMC hope their students will learn from Ender’s Game. Not to trust their leaders? To think for themselves? To consider that perhaps communication, no matter how difficult, might prevent a useless act of genocide? Because those are certainly the messages I took away from it.
If the goal of good science fiction is to make you think, then Ender’s Game, both the novel and the film, has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectation. I recommend both, in large doses.