Based on the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game takes place in the distant future: Earth is recovering from being attacked by an insect-like alien lifeform, and humanity fears that a second attack is due.
The story kicks off with an adolescent boy named Ender being confronted by a school bully. When he manages to hospitalise his antagonist, Ender is unexpectedly drafted into a troop of teenage space-army cadets. The reason? As well as overpowering the bully, Ender also hit him hard enough when he was down to make sure that he would never bully again – exactly the kind of approach that the army is looking for.
Ender’s team is being trained for a planned rematch against the aliens. The species is contained on its home planet and is currently peaceful, but Earth’s military has decided that – like Ender’s bully – the aliens should be kicked while they’re down to make sure that they never attack again.
Ender’s Game is a fine example of the kind of spectacle that we have come to take for granted from our blockbusters. When the kids are let loose into a training session which is basically zero-gravity Lazer Tag, their surround sound squeals of delight echoing across the cinema, it is hard not to be infected by some of that childlike glee at yet another CGI-fuelled techno-playground. However, the film is clearly aiming for more than mere fireworks: as the youthful lead makes a (seemingly not so large) transition from the politics of the school corridors to the grown-up world of warfare, Ender’s Game wants to give its audience a few quandaries to chew over on the way home.
To take a glass-half-full stance, the very fact that this family-targeted SF adventure film actually has something to say about the world is enough to set it apart from the likes of Star Wars. But what does it say, and how does it say it?
For the first two acts of the film, Ender gets just about everything handed to him on a plate. Right from his entry into the programme he is hailed as the smartest kid in the group simply because he comments that, when you are floating around space, the concepts of “up” and “down” are relative. He is repeatedly let off the hook, even when he accidently inflicts a serious, possibly fatal injury on another boy after being provoked into a fight – leading him to feel a crippling remorse that he gets over a few scenes later. The only time he finds himself on the wrong side of his superiors during this stretch is when he is forced to do push-ups after mouthing off to a sergeant – although, as the sergeant only resorted to this measure after being outsmarted, Ender still ultimately comes out on top.At this point Ender seems remarkably like one of those “chosen ones” who tend to turn up in fantasy fiction. The character appears to have been plucked directly from an adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasy: because he beat up a kid who picked a fight for him, he is treated to almost divine ordination, able to fend off any bullies who come his way while authority figures fawn over him.
This makes for a viewing experience which is at times annoyingly simple-minded, but the film eventually gives us a twist towards its very end when Ender is forced to reconsider who the true victims are in the conflict between men and bugs. Unfortunately, this comes too late to be fully developed: the nuance of the final act comes at the expense of the opening and middle.
Personally, I have not read the original novel, but I was aware that there would be a special revelation. The best twist endings shine a new light on the rest of the narrative, meaning that the story still has something to offer the second time round. With Ender’s Game the twist is more frustrating than anything else, as it hints at a level of complexity which could have served to enrich the entire film, not just to surprise us at the conclusion. Perhaps somebody who came to the film with fresh eyes though, would be more forgiving.
There is also room to question how many modern audiences will really be surprised when Ender comes to see the aliens as anything other than bugs to be squashed. While it is true that the popular media has long used aliens as default bad guys (unless they looked sufficiently human, like Mr Spock or Superman), the last few decades have seen various films from E.T. to Avatar portray humans as unjustly aggressive towards distinctly non-human creatures. Ender’s Game seems a little behind the times in this regard. Before I finish, I should touch upon the controversy which surrounds Ender’s Game, one which relates not to the film itself but to the author of its source novel, who also served as co-producer. Orson Scott Card is noted for his hostile views towards homosexuals and transsexuals, which he has put forward in this article. None of his views on sexuality are reflected in this film: if anything, it oddly offers an antidote to his prejudice; Ender learns to co-exist with that which he finds monstrous. Something Orson Scott Card seems incapable of doing.
Having said that, it is easy to feel a disconnection between the film’s stated message and its overall subtext. Ender embraces an alien point of view, and yet the film fails to convey any solid point of view beyond the status quo of its militaristic society. The story’s conclusion asks us to question the army that wishes to turn Ender into a killing machine, and yet for most of the film we have little choice but to sit back and cheer on his every victory as he rises through the ranks. We are left with a fundamentally divided experience: Ender’s Game wants to say something, but it cannot quite spit it out.