So, yes, I saw Ender’s Game. My wife and I saw it, and enjoyed it. I was expecting a big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movie, maybe a bit more thoughtful than most, and that’s what I got. It was good. Harrison Ford was great, and Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley, and the kid, Asa Butterfield, who played Ender, was very good. And Hailee Steinfeld, so amazing in the Coens’ True Grit was also good in this, though playing a much less interesting character. It felt a bit generic, honestly, like a lot of other big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movies. It really only surprised me once; otherwise, I felt like I was always a couple of steps ahead of it. But it looked terrific, and clipped along, and I found it a satisfying movie experience. It wasn’t until I got home that the movie got under my skin a little. I found thinking about it . . . uncomfortable. And that did surprise me, in a good way.
Example of generic movie predictability: Ender goes to this super-cool space warrior academy place, and there’s the prototypical hard-ass sergeant, Sgt. Dap. I’ve seen the actor a lot: Nonso Anozie’s in that new Dracula TV series, plus he was in Game of Thrones, also The Grey, also Conan the Barbarian. He’s got a memorable face. Anyway, he’s a movie drill sergeant–tough as nails, scary. mean. And at one point he says to Ender, “I will never salute you.” Which obviously means that later in the movie, there’ll be this touching moment where Dap salutes Ender. I mean, we’ve see a million ‘army trainee deals with tough drill instructor’ movies; the sarge is rough on the guys, but it’s only because he loves them and wants them to succeed, a truth they eventually learn in the harsh crucible of actual combat.
Basically, that’s the entire movie–young Ender rising through the ranks of a military academy. It’s a little less suspenseful than most movies of its ilk, though, because Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff (the academy commander) has this huge totally hetero man-crush on young Ender–is convinced that this kid will save mankind. Which he says over and over again, especially in all these otherwise pointless scenes with Viola Davis, who brings her usual integrity to the otherwise thankless role of Graff’s subordinate, Major Anderson. Usual stuff–’you’re being too hard on him,’ ‘I’m preparing him for combat, damnit!’ Anyway, because it’s Harrison Ford (who looks terrific) saying it, we believe him, and it turns out he’s right. Of course. And she’s sort of right too, we know, because it’s Viola Davis–she’s always right and good.
So it all looked great, and was well acted, and we like Ender, sort of, and want him to succeed, kind of. By which I mean, he seems like a nice kid and all, and we’re always sympathetic to bullying victims, but his method of dealing with bullies does strike us as, perhaps, a teensy bit, uh, permanent?
And that’s the element that makes the movie just a little bit interesting. What Colonel Graff sees in Ender is a mix of the two qualities Graff thinks epitomize great military leaders–compassion, and ruthlessness. And those aren’t actually qualities that strike us as complementary. Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War’s greatest general, (Grant, not Lee, BTW), hated seeing dead and wounded soldiers. He was visibly moved when he saw battlefield casualties; sometimes he drank. But he did send men to battle, to die in great numbers. He didn’t relish doing it, but he did it. Lord Nelson’s men wept when he died; they loved him, because they sensed how much he loved them. Lord Nelson, whose career was defined by his reckless disregard for casualties, for the desperate risks he took with the ships and men under his command. Loved, because of how deeply he loved.
Orson Scott Card takes it a step further. A great military commander has to love his enemy. He has to love him, in order to kill him. A great military commander can’t win without understanding his enemy, without compassionately understanding the culture of the enemy. To really know someone is, to some degree, to fall in love with them. And I think that’s a neat idea for a movie, but I don’t necessarily grant that it’s true. It’s perfectly possible for a genuinely great, highly successful general to also be a sociopath. Genghis Khan? Attilla the Hun? And even a compassionate military commander has to simultaneously be willing to kill, to kill in great numbers. Sitting Bull understood the white men Custer commanded better than Custer knew them, which is why the Lakota won at the Little Big Horn.
Key to the story is the notion that children are likely to be better at combat than grown-ups will be. So is that true? Better at technology, intuitively better? Certainly. Better at videogaming? Possibly. Better at leading men into battle? I’m more skeptical–leadership’s a complex thing. But that’s not how this film imagines futuristic combat taking place. This film imagines space ships dueling; sort of akin to WWII fighter plane battles. The Battle of Britain, in space, perhaps. And wasn’t the Battle of Britain won on the fields of Eton? (Actually no; the RAF was comprised of pilots from all social classes). Who is the greatest general who ever lived, the most successful and ruthless? Napolean, maybe? Hannibal, Julius Caesar? Who is the greatest young general? Alexander the Great. So is that who Ender is? Alexander? It does sort of work.
And if that’s the case, the movie fails, because although Asa Butterfield is fine as Ender, and Ender is a well-written and interesting character, he’s neither as charismatic as Alexander, or anywhere near as ruthless. He’s a nice kid who is really good at video games.
Spoiler alert: the movie’s turning point comes later in Ender’s training. He’s got a cadre of sub-commanders, and he’s given a game simulation; the destruction of the home planet of the Formecs, the ant-like insect people who nearly destroyed the Earth years before, and who seem to be gathering their forces for another attack. His strategy works, the Formecs are (at least notionally) defeated, and Ender is momentarily exultant. But as the simulation continues, and he sees, in detail, the eradication of an entire sentient species, Ender can’t handle it. He’s distraught, beside himself. That’s what they want him to do? Genocide? That’s what he’s been training for?
It’s a powerful moment, and it moves the movie beyond generic conventionality. It reminds me of the Mormon overtones to a lot of OSC’s work–Ender, to some degree, is Nephi, standing over the drunken Laban, trying to decide if he can kill him. It gives the movie some philosophic resonance beyond its space-opera-plus-public-school movie roots.
But also this: as an American, I know my nation’s prosperity is built on a foundation of genocide. Or twin foundations: genocide and slavery. As a human being, though, I don’t ever really consider this: the evolutionary tree of humanity probably had two great branches, homo sapiens, and homo neaderthalensis. Neanderthals had larger brains than humans, and stronger upper bodies. But some combination of climate change and–let’s admit it–warfare probably led to Neanderthal extinction.
Human beings are capable of kindness, charity, compassion, love. But we’re also the most ruthless and successful predators our planet has ever seen. We’re meant to recoil a bit from Colonel Graf’s insistence that wiping out all Formecs everywhere is necessary for the survival of our species. But we need to admit that (hypothetically, fictionally) he may be right, and if he is right, we’d do it. Ender grows to love the Formecs, as Graf said he would need to–you have to love your enemy in order to destroy him. That (obviously debatable) notion is at the center of this film. But the film’s final images are of Ender heading off, alone, with a Formec queen, looking for a new planet for this enemy to settle.
I think that’s what raises this movie beyond its otherwise generic appearance. All movie wrestle with ideas. Even, say, Taken, asks ‘what would you do if your children were kidnapped?’ The answer in that movie is moronic, because it’s a moronic movie, but it does at least momentarily raise a moderately interesting question. So does Ender’s Game, I think. How would humanity respond if our survival as a species was at risk? How far would we go? (And we never, absolutely never even think about the Neanderthal answer to that question, and we avoid whenever possible facing up to the Native American/African slave answers of our more recent past). Ender faces that question, and recoils from it. And then. . . . the movie ends, setting up a sequel. Which I will see.
I think the movie raises some interesting and uncomfortable questions. I applaud it for doing so, because it’s otherwise a big budget Hollywood sci-fi action movie, a genre not known for profundity. And I’m not sure it’s actually profound. But I found it unsettling, and that’s a great accomplishment for a movie.