‘I’ ON CULTURE
Ender’s Game is a science fiction movie that combines exciting fight scenes and special effects with thought-provoking questions about human nature. Based on one of the best sci-fi stories ever, it not only entertains, it provokes. Most great science fiction books never make it onto the screen. Fantasy, cartoon characters, vampires, werewolves and zombies are part of the regimen. But intelligent stories or classic books? Rare. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey came from a very minor Arthur Clarke story.
In this new film, a race called the Formics (Latin for ants) attacks Earth and almost destroys it. Only the tactical brilliance of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) stops them. Earth’s military leaders, recognizing that the Formics always learn from mistakes, start looking to breed great military geniuses, looking to find young people whose minds are very flexible so they can start training early.
Young Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a “third,” meaning an extra child in a world that restricts families to two. He is selected because both his brother and sister are brilliant, though not right for the leadership. He is sent to Battle School under the direction of Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), where he faces harrowing tasks. He is undersized but a tactical genius: perhaps the one person who might save Earth, even though he looks like he has yet to hit puberty. His brilliance makes him stand out and he becomes the target of bullies older than him. Graff, overriding the protests of counselor Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), does not intervene, being more interested in how Ender deals with things like that. Their debates, searing ones on the nature of education and human behavior, are part of what sets this movie apart. It is a superb screed against bullying. The tactical school scenes are fabulous; student leaders use their followers in mock battles in zero gravity. It is brilliantly done. Computer graphics seldom get it just right. In this movie, Cirque du Soleil performers worked with the young actors to help their movements conform to the new environment.
Eventually, Ender and his closest followers wind up in a series of mock battles that are not quite mock. Ender eventually begins to doubt all he has been told as battles go on and he is forced to make decisions. It is clear that the writers (author Orson Scott Card and screenwriter/director Gavin Hood) emphasize how leadership decisions often force people away from idealism and how manipulation can be used to force horrible decisions. It is well done, leading up to a harrowing climax.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Butterfield nails the very difficult part of Ender. He manages to not only remain true to his youth but to stand apart from everyone else, to be somehow different. Hailee Steinfeld is really good as Petra, the one girl in his inner circle, and Aramis Knight manages to make Bean, the smallest of the students, a vitally important character. I liked Abigail Breslin as Ender’s older sister Valentine, the one person he truly loves. And, wow, was it wonderful seeing Harrison Ford back as a science-fiction hero. It brought wonderful memories of another science fiction film from years ago.
The movie is officially designed for teenagers, but it is one of those movies that adults will find not only as enjoyable but more meaningful. It is a must-see for educators. Some of the bullying is harrowing, and that is good. Too often, what happens in these situations is either down-played or sensationalized. The ideas presented about growing up, about education and about the manipulation of children to do things that many adults would hesitate about, can be seen as an allegory about the world today. There are children-soldiers in many conflicts, who are deliberately dehumanized by their adult leaders. This film deals with these moral issues and many others.
This is a really good movie, one of the few we see in this genre that really does deal with the human condition. We need more of them. Go see it.