By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer
If I were a 10-year-old boy, Ender’s Game would probably be one of my favorite movies. As an adult, I found it a little more sluggish at times, but still well-acted, occasionally exciting and laden with ideas worth discussing by people young and old.
Based on the first in a series of novels by Orson Scott Card (which I have not read), Ender’s takes place 50 years after an alien invasion of Earth. Although the invaders were repelled, millions of lives were still lost and the world has invested heavily in preparing for another attack. Those preparations have focused on the world’s youth, seeking ones who are not only bold but also inventive enough to anticipate the aliens’ strategies; the young people’s skills are then tested in a series of strategic games to determine who is best suited to lead the looming fight.
Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield of Hugo) may be the best leader to be found. Both his sister and brother have tried out for the leadership program before, only to be rejected; still, Ender may combine the finest qualities in each of his siblings, along with his own understanding of tactics and the need at times for ruthless behavior. As the movie begins, he has already caught the eye of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), desperate for a great new leader. But Ender is also worrying Major Anderson (Viola Davis), who fears what the demands made on Ender will do.
The demands are certainly enormous, and hurtful to the soul, as Ender’s promise is clear not only to the higher-ups, but also to other young trainees who also want to rise. It is up to Ender to figure out how to lead others, and what to do about those who see him as a threat, especially the vicious Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias, whom you may remember from the locally made Kings of Summer). But even the personal conflicts between Bonzo and Ender are part of a larger, far more dangerous task: saving humanity.
How humanity should be saved is one of the issues pervading Ender’s Game. The film carries strong echoes of World War II (both Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings), Cold War debates over the use of nuclear weapons and — though the novel was published beforehand — the post-9/11 world. It asks how far a community must go to defend itself from an outside threat, and what price its citizens must pay for peace, and when a pre-emptive attack is justified.
It asks when any violence is justified, and how much violence. One early scene demonstrates Ender’s brutal side — but Graff sees that brutality as tactically justified.
And all these ideas play out amid elaborate, zero-gravity games and effects-rich space battles which are meant to dazzle, especially in the IMAX version of the film I saw. To be sure, they are big and loud, but they are not always coherent; when Ender leads a group in space-battle simulations, the sequences sacrifice clarity for action. The film’s end also felt like it wanted to give different parts of the audience a choice of which message to take away, satisfying everyone instead of taking a firm, final stand.
But at least Ender’s Game was trying to say something. And it does so with often good performances. Butterfield makes a fine Ender, adept at showing him as a thinker, as a vulnerable young man — and as a fighter. Ford finds a way to keep Graff from becoming monomaniacal, and he is well matched by Davis. Besides Arias, the younger performers include Hailee Steinfeld as one of Ender’s friends; the True Grit star still knows how to take small moments and make the audience pay attention.
Gavin Hood directs energetically and co-wrote the script with Card. The novelist has come under fire for comments about homosexuality, including his opposition to same-sex marriage, and a May opinion piece in which Card called President Obama a dictator and “on foreign policy … the dumbest president in American history.” I can understand your choosing not to line Card’s pockets because of those opinions, much the way we all make entertainment choices based in whole or part on our cultural and political beliefs. Don’t get me started about Roman Polanski.
Still, while I strongly disagree with Card’s remarks, such statements are not in the movie, and it can be judged apart from Card’s stances. And the movie on its own invites vigorous conversation, especially with the young people who see themselves in the well-intentioned misfit Ender.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and for Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.