(I’ll repeat this warning again in a moment, but the following will contain plot details of the book and movie “Ender’s Game,” following a brief review of the film. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, please don’t scroll past the movie poster.)
The long-in-development film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 classic “Ender’s Game” finally reached theaters this weekend. Fans of the book will find it a reasonably, but not perfectly, faithful adaptation. (Among the more significant changes: the characters are made several years older, the story unfolds over the span of months instead of years, nearly everything about the future society of Earth is cut, Ender’s brother and sister are reduced to cameo roles, and the epilogue is tremendously simplified.)
It’s an excellent movie, with clever production design, great special effects, and a generally fine cast that fades into the background under the sparks thrown between Asa Butterfield’s Ender Wiggin and his commanding officer, mentor, father figure, and ultimate enemy, Harrison Ford’s Hyrum Graff. It’s been a long time since Ford put this much effort and nuance into a role. It’s not his fault that he grew famous playing iconic pulp characters – a fair description of both Indiana Jones and Han Solo, and even his character from “Blade Runner” – but here he dives deeper into the character than even the source material went, and his performance is crucial to what audiences take away from the story. How you feel about Graff will influence whether you interpret “Ender’s Game” as an “anti-war” movie.
I don’t want to get into hardcore spoiler territory, but it’s necessary to discuss more of the plot than anyone unfamiliar with the story should know, so if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, please bail out of this post right now. I’ll use this movie poster to give you enough time to make good your escape before you read any further.
“Ender’s Game” follows the training of a boy named Ender Wiggin (considerably younger at the outset of the novel than he is in the film) at an orbital Battle School, where it is hoped he might become the genius military commander who can defeat an insectoid alien enemy known as the Formics. Only children can process information and adapt quickly enough to match the Formic hive mind in battle, so longstanding rules against inducting young children into the military are cast aside. The training is physically demanding but psychologically savage. The men and women charged with forging Ender and his peers into weapons know they are performing monstrous acts, but they’re desperate. They have every reason to believe the Formics will return and annihilate the human race if they don’t launch a pre-emptive strike.
Actually, Ender Wiggin has no peers. He’s a strategic genius unlike anyone in the world, perhaps anyone who ever lived. His gifts are partially a result of his tormented upbringing, which featured an equal measure of brutality from his brother Peter, and compassion from his beloved sister Valentine. Both of them are towering intellects in their own right – in the book, while Ender’s up there dealing with a cosmic infestation of fire ants, Peter and Valentine essentially take over the Earth, by blogging! But Ender is the perfect fusion of the two, something greater and more terrible. Valentine’s compassion mixed with Peter’s ruthless brilliance produces the perfect killing machine, but also humanizes Peter’s psychosis to begin a star-spanning adventure in tolerance and understanding. As Ender himself explains, in a quote the movie wisely uses as its thematic statement, when he understands a formidable enemy well enough to defeat them, he also comes to love them. The corollary of this statement is that the perfect warrior must also be a man or woman of great empathy and love.
This applies to the relationship between Ender and Graff, too. Butterfield and Ford play their relationship beautifully. They’re student and teacher, son and surrogate father, a man who sees himself reflected in his young charge… and, as Ender finally realizes, they are enemies. Graff has the unique challenge of designing an intellectual and emotional maze that can shape and control the most brilliant mind in existence… a mind quite capable of seeing above any but the highest maze walls. How do you control someone who can understand and defeat any foe? By being absolutely ruthless, that’s how. The tiniest slip, the smallest moment of mercy, would give the game away.
There are many games played throughout “Ender’s Game,” a motif the movie is well-equipped to present to audiences who grew up with the kind of technology that was pure science fiction when Card wrote the novel. (The first time I saw an online role-playing-game, Microsoft’s “Asheron’s Call,” I thought: “This is a lot like Ender’s Mind Game.”) But the title might best apply to the game Ender doesn’t know he’s playing. He is understandably furious – his very soul is shattered – when he learns how Graff has checkmated him. This movie is going to hurt people who think they bought a ticket to Harry Potter In Space, a concept the first half of the film cleverly and deliberately evokes, with its way-cool zero-gravity Quidditch-like laser-tag game, a core component of Battle School training. There are also parallels between the way wise old Headmaster Dumbledore used his wizard-school students in a desperate struggle against a terrible enemy, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. But Dumbledore never did anything like this to Harry Potter. Dumbledore didn’t use him, in a way that would threaten to tear Harry’s soul asunder. The kids in the Harry Potter book got to make choices Graff cannot afford to give Ender Wiggin.
Are we to emerge from the final, shattering confrontation between Graff and Ender with the idea that this has been an “anti-war” film? That’s always been a curious term, since you really don’t see a lot of “pro-war” stories these days. Pro-military, yes. But everyone knows war is a terrible business, a horror to be avoided if possible. The problem is that sometimes war is forced upon us, and we have no choice but to fight, and win at all costs.
This dilemna is made abundantly clear in the “Ender’s Game” movie, which does not skimp on reminding us that the alien Formics attacked without provocation, killing millions of people and very nearly exterminating the human race. One guy turned the tide by being the right man, in the right place, at the exact right time, and even at that, he got incredibly lucky. The human high command is not at all foolish to believe they cannot rely on that kind of luck again. They know their enemy is extremely intelligent, adapts readily to human strategies – another point raised several times during the film – and kills without remorse. They also know the Formics have an insanely high capacity for industrial production; they’re ants who can build starships, and they’re as efficient as you might imagine the ant colony from Hell would be. The human counter-strategy relies upon a one-of-a-kind secret weapon that will only be truly effective once, when it has the element of surprise.
You can hate Hyrum Graff all you want, but he’s not foolish or needlessly bloodthirsty. Ford gives him an inner life, lets us know he really cares about his students, especially Ender… and nevertheless does what he truly believes must be done, no matter the cost. It hurts him as much as it hurts the kids. It’s not a plan hatched lightly by anyone involved. They know they cannot afford to be wrong. One of the things about Ender that gets Graff’s attention is his explanation of why he beats the absolute hell out of a bully, destroying the kid instead of letting him off with a bloody nose: because that way he wins all the other fights that would have come in the future, if the bully and his friends wanted to test him further, find out if maybe he just got lucky the first time. (In the book, the bully in question dies from the beating Ender gives him, a fact deliberately kept from our hero.) How many times can the human race afford to fight inconclusive skirmishes with a more technologically-advanced, ruthless, fearless, aggressive enemy?
Note also that unlike the infantile “Avatar,” this movie does not make the Formics out to be a bunch of misunderstood innocents who get roughed up by nasty, greedy, warlike humans. If our theme is that wars can sometimes be avoided with the same application of compassion necessary to win them, there is no question that the initial lack of understanding came on the part of the Formics. The later Ender books make this more clear, but it’s clear enough to anyone paying attention to the movie. Humanity is not a pig-headed aggressor in this interstellar war. And not even Ender understands until it’s far too late that he’s been neglecting the game his enemy really wanted him to resume playing.
To interpret “Ender’s Game” as a true “anti-war” film, one would have to believe that all conflict can be avoided through understanding. That’s not what this movie is saying, and it will be a very long time before Ender Wiggin becomes the kind of prophet and leader who can bring the wildly disparate intelligent minds of the galaxy to anything resembling such a stable equilibrium of peace. In the meantime, even the Formic attack on Earth was an understandable misunderstanding, a nearly inevitable conflict between radically different species, and while the humans must take some horrible steps to win the resulting conflict, they’re not “wrong” to believe their survival depends on victory at all costs. It will be centuries before the galaxy realizes what Colonel Graff actually unleashed in his Battle School.