ReThink Review: Ender's Game -- Child Soldiers and Saviors

Ender's Game is the award-winning, best-selling first book of a science fiction series written by Orson Scott Card that was released in 1985. Card had originally said that Ender's Game was unfilmable, but director Gavin Hood's vision of Card's story earned Card's stamp of approval, with Card even signing on as one of the film's producers while acknowledging that the film is a best effort that falls short of a completely faithful adaptation. So there'll be the usual questions of whether Ender's Game will satisfy hardcore fans and interest the uninitiated. But as a newcomer to the series, I found myself much more interested in the film's take on leadership, the military, war, and empathy for one's enemy. Watch the trailer for Ender's Game below.

The film takes place in the future several decades after an insect-like alien race called the Formics attempted to colonize Earth. The humans barely beat back the invasion, and to prepare for another attack, an international military was created and tasked with turning Earth's most gifted, strategy-adept children into warriors and leaders. Perhaps the most gifted of these child recruits is Ender Wiggins, a 12-year-old (played by Asa Butterfield) who displays not only high intelligence and a knack for strategic thinking, but also a disrespect for rules and authority, an understanding of his opponents, and a capacity for savagery, which he demonstrates while retaliating against a bully.

This mix of traits is noticed by Colonel Graff (played by Harrison Ford) who, along with Major Anderson (played by Viola Davis), have Ender sent to Battle School, an orbiting space station where Earth' best and brightest kids are given extensive training in military strategy, Formic tactics and anatomy, and competitive team war games that are played in a zero-gravity environment called the Battle Room, with only the very, very best (you can probably guess who) moving on to a more advanced series of battle simulations on a deep space outpost.

From what I've seen of popular young adult book series, I wonder if kids are getting bored of yet another tale of some chosen kid with innate skills tasked with saving the world. But something I really liked about Ender's Game is that Ender is not an inherently likable character. He can be somewhat aloof and distant, which is accentuated by Graff's decision to isolate Ender and alienate him from his fellow trainees, as well as confident to the point of arrogance, and questioning of authority to the point of insolence.

However, a lot of these traits are also the traits of leaders, iconoclasts, and true outside-the-box thinkers, which Graff and eventually Ender's fellow cadets realize Ender is. After watching the movie, I can see why the US Marine Corps recommends Ender's Game to both lower ranks as well as officer candidates. Not only is the story about natural leaders being unafraid to take the helm and the importance of sacrifice and unconventional thinking in warfare, but more interestingly, about having empathy for and even loving one's enemy in order to understand how they think so, when possible, a diplomatic solution can be found. In fact, the film ends up being fairly critical of the military in terms of its "win at all costs" attitude, and in other ways that are quite prescient, like essentially using child soldiers, training them with game technology, and the morality of preemptive war.

Hutchfield does a good job as Ender though, more importantly, he has the gangly body and cracking voice of a kid Ender's age. The digital effects and set design are largely solid, as are the supporting cast, which includes True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld as a fellow cadet, Moises Arias as a jerky cadet leader, Abigail Breslin as Ender's beloved older sister, and Ben Kingsley as a legendary pilot from the first Formic war.

Fans of the book may be dismayed that the movie omits the storyline about the political machinations going on back on earth, the rise of Ender's older brother to political prominence, and the impact of political essays written by Ender and his sister. Maybe these will appear in a future sequel, but it's an understandable sacrifice to streamline the movie and keep it under two hours. And despite its similarities to other child savior films, Ender's Game's darker, pricklier hero, its messages on leadership and diplomacy, and its critical eye towards the military left me curious to see how these themes might be further developed if Ender's Game makes enough money to warrant a sequel.

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