If the true measure of intelligence is being able to hold two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time, try this on for size: novelist Orson Scott Card has written extensively about the immorality of homosexuality, even going so far as to advocate insurrection against the American government if marriage equality is upheld. But he also wrote Ender’s Game, a rich and complex sci-fi novel on which one of the best films of the year is based, one that preaches utter compassion for all beings while simultaneously acting as an intense sci-fi action tale, one that effectively challenges François Truffaut’s long-standing assertion that anti-war stories are impossible to tell in the cinematic medium.
But being able to accept these two contrary ideas is one thing, deciding what to do about it is another. As a film critic, one has certain responsibilities: to discuss a film as fairly as possible on its own merits, and also to help interested readers decide how to spend their hard-earned money. The second responsibility, in the end, is also yours. You are free to buy a ticket to Gavin Hood’s laudable sci-fi picture Ender’s Game, and if you do you are bound to see the most faithful and dramatically impactful adaptation that fans of the novel could hope for. But if you are one of the many who have decided to boycott Ender’s Game on principle (it’s been reported that Orson Scott Card won’t make a dime from ticket sales; although sales of the book have indeed recently spiked), that’s your call too, but I am still required to inform you that – in my estimation – you will be missing out on a truly fantastic motion picture.
In the near future, humanity has been changed forever after an attempted invasion by an alien race called The Formics has led to the deaths of millions. Fearing another alien attack, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) enlists gifted children into a military training program designed to teach them complicated interstellar war tactics and uncomfortable lessons about “acceptable losses” and the inhumanity of their enemy. These lessons take the form of exciting zero gravity sporting events, which are essentially futuristic Quidditch matches but with a valid dramatic reason to exist beyond the fact that “they look cool.” Although they do indeed look cool.
His latest student is Ender Wiggin, played by Hugo’s Asa Butterfield. Ender is already an unusually gifted tactician, but he is repeatedly manipulated by Graff into social situations that test and shape his abilities as a leader of men and women. Graff beats the humanity out of Ender to transform him into a military mastermind, but his job is complicated by a curious tendency from Ender to experience genuine empathy. Ender cannot completely divorce himself from his loving relationship with his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), who was deemed too compassionate for service. But this saving grace is also at war with his relationship with his brother, Peter (Jimmy Winchak), who was deemed too violent, and whose influence Ender can’t seem to shake either.
As writer/director Gavin Hood institutes a ticking clock not found in Orson Scott Card’s novel, increasing the tension in every conversation that threatens to turn Ender into a real human being instead of a weapon, Asa Butterfield impressively translates Ender’s personal turmoil into a multi-layered hero. Ender eventually reveals that his compassion for his opponents no longer frees him from the need to compete; by understanding and loving his enemies, he has instinctively equipped himself with valuable information necessary to defeat them. Asa Butterfield’s eyes and cracking voice betray his conflicted conscience: he can't turn himself off. Every interaction is itself a war, and even love – if you'll forgive the reference – is a battlefield.
The ending of Ender’s Game – at once disarming and wholly familiar, thanks to the novel’s popularity – is as potent as ever. Gavin Hood uses the film’s final revelations to recontextualize every aspect of the story, from the real games to the mind games to the philosophical discussion of war itself. Ender’s Game’s increasingly vivid depiction of simulated warfare raises valid questions about transforming war into an Us vs. Them hypothesis, and smartly addresses the serious concerns that video games are desensitizing youth to treat violence as an activity, not a reality. The impressively realized space battles – at once impossibly complex and easy to follow in their broadest strokes – thrillingly portray the glory of battle, only to reveal in one devastating swoop the overpowering tragedy of victory.
You were meant to have fun. So was Ender. By reducing the vast and horrible implications of warfare to spectacular simulations, the heroes of Ender’s Game and Gavin Hood himself get to revel in all the joys that war stories are able to provide, free of traditional moralizing. But by the end of Ender’s Game, traditional moralizing falls apart in favor of a new and unexpected form of moral conflict, capped with a finale that embraces compassionate humanity, but that would have been meaninglessly simplistic without the dark coming of age tale and action-packed thrill ride that preceded it.
Ender’s Game is a handsome production, beautifully designed, impressively performed and adapted into one of the richest big screen science fiction tales in recent memory. It has valid points to make, and advocates serious discussion far beyond whatever issues audience members may have with Orson Scott Card.
Ender’s Game ultimately advocates that when history looks back on us, our actions need to be morally defensible. Whatever our beliefs may be, how we act on them matters. Whether Card lives by this credo or not (his essays seem to imply “not”), his greatest storytelling achievement promotes the most beautiful form of humanism.
What’s more, thanks to the impressive direction and adaptation from Gavin Hood, it does so through a film that ecstatically entertains. Ender’s Game teaches important lessons and raises valid, contemporary issues that couldn’t have been taken seriously if it wasn’t also wonderfully fun, because if it wasn’t fun you would have no reason to feel bad about it. That’s a nearly impossible balance to strike, and Hood strikes it ever so delicately, kicking ass at the same time.
I can’t bring myself to punish such a remarkable motion picture just because one person responsible for making it (even the original author) stands for something I completely disagree with, especially since the film itself preaches the opposite of all the rhetoric he has become so infamous for. I also can’t help but find it a pity that the sins of the father must be visited upon a child – if a work of art can indeed be considered such – that is itself blameless for those crimes. Art can be separated from the artist, as indeed it has to be since every story we've ever been told wasn’t prefaced with a detailed biography of the author.
If you knew nothing about Orson Scott Card, you’d never suspect that Ender’s Game was written by someone who argues strenuously against equal rights. Instead, you’d simply be taken aback by the quality of a motion picture that, rare amongst them, offers enormous pleasure and social value simultaneously.