[1 November 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I am aware of his statements admitting that the question of gay marriage is a battle that he lost and he admits that he lost it. I think we all know that we’ve all won. That humanity has won. And I think that’s the end of the story.”
“He’s the one.” And with that, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) nails shut the fate of 12-year-old Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), not to mention the plot of Ender’s Game. Apparently, Graff has been looking for his one for decades, and now that he’s found him, the old man means to wrench him into service against the enemy, a species from another planet that looks giant-buglike and goes by the name of Formics.
Ender and all his peers have heard the story of the Formics since they were born, a story that begins and ends when they attacked earth in 2086, killed thousands of humans, and were defeated by a suicide bomber—make that legendary martyr—named Mazer Rackham. Since then, the kids have had impressed on them that their mission in life, if only they’re lucky enough, is to kill Formics. The very lucky kids, like Ender, are enrolled in Battle School, where they watch and rewatch the slickly edited recording of Mazer Rackham’s awesome victory.
The adults who watch the kids watching—like Graff and his psychological counselor associate Gwen (Viola Davis)—propose that kids are better at gaming than they are and so must be exploited to save the universe. In order to discover the one kid who is best at such gaming, the adults use insidious surveillance technologies, setting them up for contests and fights with each other while peering into their minds to assess their skills.
In games on screens, or even in classrooms (here, a science lab with models and beakers to knock over with great noise and careening camera angles that don’t make precise sense as “surveillance”), Ender’s capacity for “strategy” impresses Graff. Asked to explain himself, the significantly named Ender describes his strategy as more or less preemptive: a scrawny boy, he beats his opponents so severely they won’t want to fight him again.
This may be the most distressing aspect of Ender’s Game. Not only is Ender brilliantly violent (he says he’s learned it from his more violent older brother, whose lack of self-control—illustrated during a disturbing assault on Ender—got him kicked out of Battle School), but also Graff and Gwen and other grown-ups in uniforms commend him for it, then advance him in rank and level of difficulty. Certainly, Ender’s Battle and Command School experiences mimic the indoctrination, deception, and manipulation of teenagers in the military and other institutions. But these aren’t teenagers: the film repeatedly shows that the recruits—including Ender’s very obviously multi-culti teammates, Bean (Aramis Knight), Alai (Suraj Partha), and Dink (Khylin Rhambo)—are children, slender in their baggy uniforms, their jaws unset, their eyes trusting.
The youth of these fighters is the point of Ender’s Game, but that doesn’t mean the story—based on the now infamously homophobic Orson Scott Card’s novel—is precisely “young adult.” True, Ender’s role as savior recalls Harry Potter, and the quandaries he faces may evoke The Hunger Games, but the film’s messy wrestling with violence—as ethos, as strategy—is something else again. Ender and his friends, including his most loyal training partner Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), are expert gamers, whether their skills are visualized as exercises in weightless formations or on holographic keyboards and still-thrilling-material joysticks. The adults deploy the kids like drone pilots, pretending their missions are fully justified and without consequence, for victims or shooters.
Director Gavin Hood made another, quieter film about a child beset by complex moral decisions, Tsotsi. The new one runs into some trouble as it delivers generic conventions—CGIed explosions, acrobatics, and stunts—while also posing questions about those conventions (among these questions is Ender’s own, wondering whether the Formics are trying to communicate with the humans). And so Ender falls somewhere between Katniss (whose brutal violence is directed and deployed as entertainment, an exploitation she recognizes and endeavors to resist) and Unforgiven‘s William Munny, a man whose exceptional skills produce crowd-pleasing violence even as he instructs that crowd to rethink feeling so pleased (“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”).
The problem for Ender’s Game is its own need to please crowds. As a generic exercise and presumed start of a movie franchise, it argues for Ender’s exceptionalism, for his moral consciousness, his perfect mix of empathy and violence, his mastery of games. His smallness emphasized when he stands near the much larger Graff or, especially, Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie), Ender is the kid his viewers might want to be.
But he has to oppose this model, too, to be exceptional in unexpected ways, ways that might not initiate a franchise but instead, stop it before it starts. The film’s own dilemma might be best expressed by Ender, who challenges Graff, “What are you going to do? Waste millions on a loser?” It’s a dilemma Ender’s Game can’t resolve.