Much has been made of Orson Scott Card's Mormon heritage and the influence it might have had on his beloved series, Ender's Game. But what about the new film? Does it have Mormon -- or even broadly Christian -- overtones?
At first glance, Ender's Game appears to be fairly a-religious: Characters do not openly discuss their faith nor do they celebrate religious holidays. No religious symbols appear and a state-sponsored religion is never mentioned.
Yet, the dystopian film also depicts a main character whose role bears significant resonances to Christ's. At the start of the film, the protagonist Ender -- the third child of John Paul and Theresa -- is chosen by Colonel Graff to save planet Earth from an alien attack led by the Formics. Distinguished by his extraordinary strategic savvy, Graff trains the young Ender to become a violent yet empathic genius who is simultaneously admired and hated by his peers.
As Ender progresses through Battle School and Command School to ultimately encounter the so-called nemesis Formics, he learns that he is destined to save humankind from the evil forces that threaten them, and as he prepares to accept that fate, he rallies around him a group of loyal followers, disciples, one might even say. As Major Anderson remarks at the beginning of the movie, the children training to defeat the Formics, "need someone the others will follow, a leader."
And lead is precisely what Ender does. Now, insofar as Ender is endowed with a unique set of skills that set him apart from his peers and give him the ability to deliver humankind from evil forces, one can see the parallels with Christ. Like Christ, Ender is different from other humans. Like Christ, Ender has a mission of deliverance. And like Christ, Ender is controversial, beloved by his followers and hated by those who feel threatened by him.
Yet the parallel isn't perfect [SPOILER ALERT]: Unlike Ender, Jesus' calling is to save the world from inescapable sin of a distinctly negative quality. However, it turns out that the Formics, Ender's great enemy, are actually non-violent and weren't trying to incite violence with planet earth; they were merely afraid and attempting to defend themselves. In other words, Ender winds up committing mass genocide -- destroying nearly an entire race of peaceful bug-like creatures -- when simple diplomacy may well have sufficed. (Aside: Here one might say that Mormonism's theology of the justification of defensive war might be present -- see here for more information on Mormon beliefs about war and peace.)
Moreover, even the genocide wasn't intentional. Colonel Graff deceives Ender, so that he defeats the Formics thinking he is playing a game rather than waging a real life battle. In contrast, the gospel stories generally suggest that Jesus died on the cross knowing that his actions were for good.
But perhaps the most compelling difference between Ender and Jesus lies in their methods: Jesus' message is one of peace, and his death one of obedience. Offering himself on a cross, Jesus refuses to engage in violence, even violence that might protect his own life. In contrast, Ender is pressured and manipulated into becoming a boy well acquainted with the power violence wields. As he says in the film, "Follow the rules, you lose. Choose violence, you win."
In the end, Ender's ability to turn to violence and defeat the Formics simultaneously makes him a hero to those on planet Earth and a monster from his own perspective. He regrets his actions, regrets his ability to use gaming strategies for the purpose of killing. As he says, "The way we win matters," and from his point of view, the way that he and his team of disciples won was not worth the cost.
It is through irony, then, that the abominable actions Ender takes allow the film to most clearly resonate with the Christian worldview. As Ender regrets his decisions, the viewer sees the message of Christ illuminated -- that violence is not the way forward, that redemption comes another way. In other words, in functioning antithetically to Christ, Ender creates a contrast that allows the viewer to see the value of that philosophy which deeply informs the life of most Christians, including Mormons: that peace and reconciliation are a means to salvation.
Of course, one might respond that none of this is intended, that a film is just a film. But even if you remove faith from the conversation, the message of Ender's Game is still one of peace, and that makes it a film that a Christian could be proud to see.
(Unless, of course, you're a Christian who objects to Orson Scott Card's views of homosexuality... but that's a topic for a future article.)