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Film Review: Ender’s Game

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More than just another "shoot 'em up" film, this movie will be sure to keep your mental gears turning.

Remember how everyone stood around in the theater during the end credits of recent sci-fi blockbusters like Star Trek: Into Darkness or Oblivion and debated the ethical and philosophical implications of the story? No? Neither do I, actually. That's probably because it never happened. Anywhere. Ever! But as I walked from the screening of Ender's Game and faced the inevitable question from the publicity people (“Well, what did you think?”), one response jumped immediately to mind.

“You know what I really liked about this movie?” I said, “I like that there are still big groups of people hanging out inside the auditorium arguing over it.” You see, despite the film’s generic advertising campaign which seemed to promise just another overblown spectacle chock full of galactic destruction, Ender's Game actually wants you to leave your thinking cap on while you watch stuff blow up.

To fans of the book, this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel on which the movie was based is generally recognized as a science-fiction classic, having not only won both the prestigious Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novel, but also eventually finding itself on many a schoolteacher’s recommended reading list (including, of all places, The U.S. Marine Corps Professional Reading List for officer candidates!). Like many other great literary works, Ender’s Game transcends the trappings of its genre and addresses timeless themes relevant to the human condition. In short, it's a good read. 

But, of course, we're talking about the movie and not the book, so as often happens with adaptations, not everything on the page (printed or otherwise) makes the transition to the big screen. Devotees to the novel will likely find to their horror that every single subplot (every. single. one) has been jettisoned from the narrative, and the main storyline itself has been streamlined into something resembling a Reader's Digest condensed version of the original story. 

What’s left is still fairly engaging, though. Set in a future in which the planet Earth has suffered near destruction from attacks by an insect-like race known as the Formics (or Buggers, if you prefer), Ender’s Game tells the story of the International Fleet’s effort to breed and train intellectually superior children capable of comprehending the alien’s complex battle tactics and countering them. To this purpose, Ender Wiggin, a boy of roughly 11 years of age, draws the attention of the IF’s Colonel Graff following an incident involving a school’s bully. Ender, having already managed to incapacitate the much larger boy, repeatedly kicks him while he is unable to defend himself, Ender's assumption being that if he establishes dominance now he will effectively deter future attacks. From Graff's perspective, this is just the kind of ruthless tactical thinking that might save the planet, so he eagerly conscripts Ender into training at the IF’s Battle School.

Because the situation represents the entire reason he was allowed to be born in the first place (Earth’s government has established a mandatory two-child limit; Ender was a legally requested third), and because he really has no choice anyway, Ender agrees to leave Earth with Graff. Inwardly, however, Ender is horrified at his own actions. His fear is that he will become like his brother Peter, who was rejected for Battle School due to sociopathic tendencies, rather than turn out more like his sister Valentine, who was rejected for displaying too much compassion. Ender's hope is that he will be able to find some balance between the two so that he might help save his species without losing his soul in the process.

As Ender quickly discovers, however, Graff appears to be only interested in developing his brutal side. From the first moment Ender steps on the transport to the orbiting Battle School, Graff begins to engineer situations that raise ire in the other students towards Ender, his theory being that the adversity will help hone Ender more quickly into the new Napoleon he feels Earth needs for the rapidly approaching final battle with the Formics. On the surface, Graff appears to be proven correct, as Ender’s unprecedented progress in the school’s zero-gravity war games indicates he is everything the Fleet could have hoped for. The boy is quick to access situations, adapt to unfavorable conditions, and most importantly to Graff, willing to sacrifice anything or anyone as long as victory is assured.

But despite his outward successes, the school’s psychologist, Major Anderson, fears Ender may be cracking internally. While Graff has been overseeing the boy’s military training, Anderson has been monitoring Ender’s progress in an off-duty role playing game in which his choices reflect the inner conflict going on inside his young mind. Even more troubling to both Graff and Anderson, scenarios are beginning to appear in Ender’s game that were not programmed to be there, and nobody seems to have an explanation as to why or what it means.

Now, to say too much more about how Ender’s time at the Battle School is resolved would be to spoil things, and I don't want to do that because, while much of what goes on beforehand is interesting and entertaining, it is the story’s unexpected ending which really delivers the film’s emotional wallop and brings to sharp focus those aforementioned ethical and philosophical issues that seem to elude so many other recent movies with this kind of setting. The movie raises questions such as: What actions are justifiable in times of war? Is there any room for compassion in battle (St. Augustine had a few opinions on that subject)? And what are the proper ways in which adults should exert their influence over children (Jesus had a few words to say about this)?

But probably the most fascinating idea running throughout Ender’s Game is the one that deals with the notion of empathy. The Church has always recognized empathy as a desirable thing, a subset of the theological virtue of charity. Ender, however, views his gift of empathy as a curse. As he explains to his sister Valentine, he is so able to empathize with his enemies that he comes to love them. And once he loves them, he begins to understand them. And once that understanding becomes complete, it’s then that Ender knows exactly how to destroy his enemies completely. It’s a stark reminder that, if we’re not vigilant, our sinful natures can even find ways to misuse the virtues God designed to help us perform good acts and give the best of ourselves to others. It’s heady stuff, and not really the type of topic one typically finds covered in big budget cinematic space operas.

If only the presentation of the story had been equal to the ideas it contained, Ender’s Game (the film) might well have become a classic on equal standing with its literary progenitor. Unfortunately, thanks to a few flaws, the film is merely good when it could have been great. Primarily, it feels too rushed. Yeah, I know – after a summer full of unnecessarily over-bloated blockbusters, it seems a strange thing to say, but Ender’s Game could easily have benefited from an extra twenty or so minutes. The characters of Peter and Valentine are underdeveloped, and so their influence on Ender’s psyche isn’t fully explored. More importantly, the computer game which Ender plays in his spare time, and which is of utmost importance to the outcome of events, is barely given any time at all. Because of this, some of the things which transpire near the end of the film almost seem to come out of left field. Just a couple of more moments spent with the game would have made the finale fit more naturally into the narrative.

Still, it’s hard to beat up on the movie too much. With its over-abundance of ideas and the guts to go with a resolution that completely turns the typical Hollywood ending on its head, Ender’s Game is a welcome addition to a genre that too often of late settles for the shallow. Plus, it gives you the added value of giving you some things to argue about on the way home, so it’s got that going for it as well.

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