Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Moises Arias, Aramis Knight, Suraj Parthasarathy, Khylin Rhambo, Jimmy Jax Pinchak, Conor Carroll, Nonso Anozie, Tony Mirrcandani
Ender’s Game, the title of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 science-fiction novel, is a surprisingly layered combination of words. It refers to the many games played by its protagonist, Andrew aka ‘Ender’ Wiggin, as he passes from one little videogame with a rat on his laptop to the massive computer simulations in which battleships destroy planets (stopping for some anti-g laser-tag in the process).
But Ender is also being played – a pawn in the larger game that the officers around him, Colonel Graff in the lead, are playing with him. These games intersect with each other until the story’s final denouement, in which the title picks up another signification: Ender’s Game, that is to say, the game of the one who ends, in which things are irrevocably terminated – wars, species and civilisations.
The long-awaited 2013 film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s book, Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, introduces yet another dimension to that title. In this version, the emphasis has shifted from the subtle games that Card himself attempts to play with his readers to a paranoid fear of sexual violation. Ender is projected not so much as a boy genius but as a rape victim, isochronally re-enacting his trauma in the form of different metaphors and power plays, constantly racked by guilt over their outcome. In the light of this (re)presentation, the title Ender’s Game can be read as a disturbing double entendre that reflects the film’s obsessive anxiety: Ender is Game, simultaneously signifying that he is sexually available and that he is the object of a hunt.
To the extent that alien invasion flicks traditionally stage our fear of the Other, Ender’s Game takes a place in that continuity by conflating a post-9/11 metaphor, in which a traumatised world rearms for war, with a stricken fear – exasperated to the point of denial – of sexual violation. The world after 9/11 is reimagined by Hood as the psyche after rape.
That Ender’s traumatic rape should have been 9/11 itself, if you will, is something we only find out at the end – though clues are there as we see the first family scenes in the film, when Ender’s parents and siblings sit in front of the TV. Ender’s family is a white middle-class cliché ‘infiltrated’ by a foreign father (technically a Russian, actually an American actor, thus forecasting some of the film’s problems with ethnic representation – more on this later). As scenes of civil destruction roll through the family’s TV, backed by the ‘Never Again’ rhetorical messages (echoes of ‘Never Forget’), the dialogue highlights the lack of personal communication within the family. John Wiggin (Stevie Ray Dallimore), we learn, does not talk to his son, or at least, not enough.
Though this scene has little weight if taken on its own merits, it acquires significance in retrospect, when the trauma in the film has fully played out and the rape has been re-perpetrated and revealed. The vignette in which the white middle-class family calmly watches the devastation reflects a post-9/11 anxiety about the failure of the image – the notion that 9/11 itself has only been understood as an event that took place in the media, repressing (even silencing) its real effect in terms of death and destruction. In spite of, or perhaps because of the perfect power of the media to transmit and exhaust the event in its totality, that same event loses its ability to change the world. Its power is exhausted in (and by) representation.
Ender translates this suppression of physical violence in favour of its virtual signifiers as an experience of rape, one that he cannot reveal or explain to his family any more than the images on the TV can adequately convey the meaning of 9/11. John Wiggin’s cold contemplation of the smoking buildings in the screen reflects his inability to ‘see’ Ender’s own violation, which Ender in turn is unable to articulate.
To be clear, even were we to dismiss the cultural associations with 9/11 that are opened up by the science-fictional vision of the future, it’s only too easy to read Ender’s journey from that familial starting point as a narrative of rape recovery (and a dubiously successful one, at that). Ender is the typical victim of sexual abuse, lost in space and unable to communicate with either his family or his peers, socially awkward, haunted by bad dreams, unable to grow into his mature sexuality and for this reason eternally stuck in the position of a prepubescent man. His inability to relate to either sex in a mature manner is mirrored in the desexualised, gender-neutral suits that his child comrades wear: the only way that people can be friends with Ender, it seems, is by having their sexuality erased.
In fact, not since Alien has a space opera been so haunted, so patently terrified, by the idea of sex and sexuality. But while Alien’s strategy was that of forcing the phallic-headed alien into the clinical, supposedly safe spaces of the ship, Ender’s Game does the opposite – it erases, represses, exiles, negates all male sexual references. The rare instances when a phallic object is allowed within the sterilised ambiences of the film, it’s a clear demonic signifier, even to the point of being identified with the inhuman Formics – first, when Ender beats his bullies at school with a spiked phallus, symbolically enacting a revenge fantasy (raping the rapist), and then again towards the end, when the alien queen touches him with a grotesque, phallic finger. For the rest of the film, references to male sexuality are constantly silenced at the margins, in favour of a degree of Yonic symbolism (in the corridors, the rings, the organic tunnels in the alien base, the round gates in Battle School allowing access to a pre-natal, floating space) that once again has no parallel since Alien.
Ender’s condition of post-rape melancholia expresses itself in the longing for a ‘return to the womb’ voyage, which he physically actuates at the end of the film by entering the cave where the queen egg was waiting for him. In Ender’s laptop videogame, which allows the character to turn his emotions into virtual icons, this same longing is expressed in the avatar’s journey to fairyland.
The subsequent bombing of that ideal, fable-like city, complete with falling towers and the flying cloud of dust, is at once a dream-like metaphor for sexual violence and also an echo of 9/11 imagery of urban devastation, the latter being perhaps one of the topical themes of contemporary science-fiction. This year alone we’ve had Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, and Thor all throwing back to such iconographies, not to mention last year’s Avengers: Assemble, which set the bombings directly in New York City (it’s interesting to note the parallel with the rise of the Godzilla mythology and all its related imagery in Japanese sci-fi of the atomic era). Compared to representations of a post-apocalyptic future – a science-fictional theme especially popular in the past – visions of the fantastic now seem more concerned with a post-apocalyptic present.
Ender’s Game is unique among its peers, as we mentioned, for the way it collapses this act of civil destruction with one of sexual violence. Ender’s backward journey into pre-sexual nirvana is punctuated with instances in which he re-lives his rape in an attempt to gain mastery over it. The most overt of these scenes is, of course, the one in the shower, in which Ender is surrounded by three bullies, has to struggle with one of them half-naked, and commits murder, typically ending up with feelings of guilt over his own abuse. But virtually all of Ender’s officers – Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), Sergeant Dap (Nonzo Anozie), Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) – engage with the boy in at least one scene of highly unbalanced power struggle.
Normally these involve the officers abusing their power by forcing him to do push ups, taking away his privacy rights, or (in Rackham’s case) literally forcing him down face-forwards onto a bed, and eventually intimating silence, turning Ender into the silent rape victim. Ender’s brother, too, pins him onto a bed and simulates rape-choke. All of these instances of abuse lead to the final and most elemental allegory of rape, re-enacted by Ender on a galactic scale: the forced penetration of the phallic ship into the atmosphere of the circular world of the alien queen, where it spills its white lasers into the planet’s core and damages it irreparably.
The film’s apparent conclusion – that the white hero was the rapist all the time – appears to be self-effacing, and stimulating in many ways. In the manner the film formulates it, however, it’s highly problematic. In the final act, Ender appears to be regressing – he breaks with Graff (by extension, the officer corps), and is left alone by his friends in the company of his only female comrade, Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfield). In the end he leaves the interstellar fleet itself, and the last character appearing in the film before his departure is his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin).
Valentine is, in principle, one of the most interesting characters. But she has little space in the film to play anything other than Ender’s anthropomorphised desire. She appears to him as a virtual figure in his videogame, as a guide into fairyland and the womb that it symbolizes, even waiting for him inside the egg at its core. One of the few scenes in which Ender and Valentine are together in the real world takes place on a lake, but the scenario here is so Edenic that it can scarcely be discerned from the virtual fairyland. Petra represents a surrogate of Valentine, who is also an older sister of sorts, also something of a motherly figure as she trains him in Battle School, and certainly no less of a guide into regression as she first takes him, hand in hand, into the floating womb of the space station. Valentine and Petra are both ambiguous figures of desire. As sister and surrogate mother, they are socially desexualised and yet a classic taboo, simultaneously denying and allowing Ender’s access to the female womb.
The problem with ending the film on the regression to Valentine’s character is that the ideal she represents is precisely one which 9/11, as a cultural shock, puts in question: that of white privilege. This, and not the homophobic nonsense trumpeted by Card, represents the film’s most hidden and problematic agenda. Not only is Valentine the princess in the middle-class white suburb, she is distinctly associated in Ender’s vision to transcendence – a direct contrast to the violent, degraded physicality of the other black, Asian and Latino characters. Valentine’s condition as a digital character is a reflection of her symbolic idealism. Like whiteness itself, she subsists in a state unsullied by the dark realities of the body, a Virgin / Virtual Mary that lives in the same land where fairyland was built. (This, too, is a classic theme of contemporary science fiction, though it’s perhaps more frequently encountered in games than in film, e.g., ‘guidance’ figures as supercomputers that communicate via the avatar of an ethereal, translucent woman are very common indeed.)
Valentine therefore stands in direct, perhaps intentional contrast to the powerful bodies of Ender’s surrounding characters, starting from General Dap, who is a caricature of the black, third world African officer associated with child soldiers (and whose prime mode of punishment is corporal – ‘give me twenty’), down to Bonzo Madrid (Moisés Arias), the rat-like, big-nosed, dwarfish, violent Latino bully whom Ender kills in the shower, and finally Mazer Rackham, the commander of Maori descent who pins Ender onto the bed.
In a certain sense, Ender’s Game takes a leap forward from the ethnocentrism of a pre-9/11 invasion flick like Independence Day. That film compromised its prejudice via the whitewashed character of Steve Hiller (Will Smith), who is essentially a successful rehashing of Top Gun’s Maverick (Tom Cruise). The black man is allowed to dress like the white hero if he follows the white cultural script—he works among whites, lives among whites, buddies up with a white, fights next to whites. Ender’s Game does the opposite.
Ender is prefigured from the beginning as the white hero, the one who has a right to represent all of humanity by virtue of his ethnic neutrality. Being white is, traditionally, the condition of being ethnically neutral, and this, of course, is the nature of white privilege. This prefiguration of Ender as the white hero is so open that it’s almost self-conscious (Graff literally refers to him as ‘the one’ within the first five minutes of the film), and it may cloud the real cultural stereotyping that informs his characterization.
The point here is not that other ethnicities do not exist, but that they are enlisted as subordinates of the white hero, whose identity is defined by allowing for theirs. Minorities must exist in Ender’s Game, to justify the protagonist’s Ending of Discrimination. Ender’s ‘game’ is here a game of paternal assimilation, in which the minority groups are made to play (out) their gender identities, thus allowing for the default white identity to play at being of another ethnicity. Salaam, says Alai, the Middle Eastern representative in this motley crowd, playing out his obvious script. Salaam, responds Ender in salute, appropriating that script (the irony, alas, may be lost on poor little Ender – does he know that the word means ‘peace’?).
Alai aside, other characters of colour are generally chiselled into similar clichés. Sergeant Dap’s African cultural script has already been touched upon, but Bonzo Madrid, supposedly a Spanish character, is a monumental stereotype, from his ridiculous name to the whole lingo he employs: ‘That pendejo’, he exclaims of Ender, a Latin American expression you are no more likely to hear from a Spanish kid than ‘douchebag’ from a British one, clearly framing him as the dangerous Mexican immigrant.
More so than Ender (or even his father, that aforementioned heavily accented Russian played by an American), it is commander Mazer Rackham who best embodies the white-under-cover here. He is literally covered with tattoos that provide a spotted pelt for his whiteness. Kingsley’s casting as a Maori descendant is really quite comical, but the fact that he is not credible as an ethnic Other makes him thoroughly convincing as the white impersonator: appropriative, self-congratulatory and sexually aggressive.
Ultimately it’s the film’s failure to see the parallel between the appropriation of ethnic space by white characters and the sexual violence continuously perpetrated by those same characters (Rackham’s in particular, and that of Ender’s Aryan brother) that makes the ending so questionable. The scarred conscience of the post-9/11 white hero wants to be compassionate and inclusive, taking in all other ethnicities under its protective (albeit military) wing. But it fails to give those minority groups the same right to choose their cultural scripts as it awards its white characters. The fairyland built (or re-built) by Ender Wiggin may at first glance be more colourful than even the real world. Yet it’s no less a fairyland.