ENDER’S GAME. Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis. Directed by Gavin Hood. Rated M (Science fiction themes and violence). 114 min.
This American science fiction film is based on the core elements of two novels, “Ender’s Game” and “Ender’s Shadow”, both written by Orson Scott Card, who also co-produced the film.
An alien race of fierce, ant-like creatures, called the Formics, has attacked Earth twice, and is determined to destroy humanity in its next assault.
Over half a decade after the last attack, the people remaining on Earth have banded together to ward off their impending destruction and annihilation from a race that is technologically superior. The humans remaining on Earth have placed their hope in the training of their young children to fight for the future. This is science fiction where children save the world, and they are taught not only to kill, but also not to show empathy for anyone else. If empathy intrudes, they fail their training program.
One conscript is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), whose brilliance soon becomes manifest, as his emerging ability is recognised. Ender is separated from his dysfunctional family, and transferred to deep space to be re-educated in an advanced military space academy. Helping to train him is Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), who works with the International Military. The children in the academy are being prepared for the future alien invasion, and are being trained as killers. In the course of his education, Ender begins to have doubts, and he starts to lose hope that Earth, and his family can be saved.
Ender masters speedily whatever he is taught, and is soon accepted by Graff as the military’s best hope. He is promoted to their Command force, and comes under the influence of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), whose heroism saved humanity when the Aliens last attacked. The film develops into a violent interplanetary battle, in which Ender plays a commanding part. He is told that it is a game that he is playing, but it is the real thing. He has been tricked into determining the future of another race.
The underlying moral theme of the film revolves around the notion of a boy hero, who achieves hero status through being a hardened killer. His doubts make it clear where true morality lies, but the film has some wavering moments. Many of those who have been trained, enjoy what they have been trained for, and it is morally risky to play with the theme of children as saviour-killers.
It takes a special kind of movie to lure Harrison Ford out of hiding to return to the screen, and the reasons for his return probably rest in the popularity of Scott Card's novels. They have grown enormously in status over time, and Card’s creations have solid popular appeal. Ford characteristically brings his usual gruff sophistication to his role, and Ben Kingsley impresses as Mazer Rackham. Viola Davis supplies some needed contrary advice in her role as Major Gwen Anderson.
This is an entertaining film that is visually spectacular. It is slow to build up its pace, and it spends a lot of time focusing on the negative. It only sees the moral error of its ways in the final scenes of the movie when Ender decides to take responsibility for the race he has destroyed.
This is thought-provoking science fiction, but it plays very problematically with the notion that cold and calculating young children, trained to kill, are needed to save us all in the end.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out December 5th 2013.