by Tony Dayoub
Forget the external controversies regarding homophobic statements made by author Orson Scott Card, on whose novel the new science fiction film Ender's Game is based. The movie itself is problematic for a myriad of other reasons inherent to its source material. Ender's Game advocates fascism for a major portion of its nearly 2-hour running time. What makes this somewhat disturbing is the story's approach. It plays less like your usual Joseph Campbell-type hero narrative and more like a Young Adult novel with elements of authorial projection/wish-fulfillment fantasy. With most of its military characters being children played by children, it's not unlikely that kids are its target audience. This begs the question, is this the kind of deceptively benign space saga you'd want your kids exposed to?
Ender's Game traces the path of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a pre-teen strategic savant in an authoritarian, futuristic Earth still recovering from a destructive war with the insectoid Formics. Recruited into Battle School by the demanding Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender quickly moves up the ranks to lead a group of talented outcasts in simulations predicated on the expected return of the hive-like Formics. Their objective: to find a scenario that will effectively terminate the Formic threat for good.
Although obvious comparisons can be made to Starship Troopers, another actioner that depicts a war between a totalitarian future Earth and invading bug-like aliens, there are some marked differences. Troopers director Paul Verhoeven subtly looked askance at its protagonists and the nationalistic fervor with which they continually battled the Arachnids. Verhoeven even hid one key plot element in plain sight, quietly hinting that it was the humans that initiated this aggression. Not so with Ender's Game where Ender is repeatedly whispered of in hushed tones by Graff and others, like a messianic figure, for melding compassion with cold-blooded, surgically-applied violence to come up with solutions that not only end battles but "end all future battles."
Whether by design or execution, Ender's Game unabashedly stands behind its philosophy for quite a long time. The disquieting idea of child soldiers manipulated by patriotic allegiance to a one-state global government is made mostly attractive, with few qualms raised here and there. The mannered dialogue is a combination of the hollow aphorisms and tactical technobabble one associates with military propaganda doublespeak. Space battles are abstracted to the point where they resemble enticingly hypnotic first-person shooter games, obfuscating the grimier, troubling aspects of war.
Yes, one could argue that deep in Ender's Game's third act the story takes a substantive turn which mitigates the movie's questionable aspects, suddenly becoming critical of the way its hero has been used by Graff and his superiors. But in a movie styled like a YA story, rated PG-13 to clearly capture a younger demo, is a late redemption by its hero going to be sufficiently obvious to counter the precedent set up in its first two-thirds? Ender's Game is intriguing and appealing in the way most conservative war movies are. I'm just not sure its corrective in the finale won't be lost on younger viewers.