Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 54 min. Our advisories: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 2.5
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Director Gavin Hood’s science fiction film is both interesting and disturbing. Adapted from Orson Scott Card’s book, it is set in the not too distant future when earth’s combined military known as the International Fleet is getting ready for the next fight-to-the-finish war. Some fifty years earlier ant-like aliens known as the Formics had tried to colonize earth. They killed tens of millions of people, but were finally driven off when a fighter pilot named Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) discovered their weakness and destroyed their mother ship, causing the other ships to flee back to their home planet. This is the interesting part: that which is disturbing is the IF’s program of separating gifted children from their families and teaching them in a harsh setting to become killers—all, of course, in the good cause of saving humanity. Nothing has been heard from the Formics, nor have any Earth authorities tried to contact them because neither were able to understand one another. Earlier the Formics had made no overture to deal with humans—they had simply attacked the planet.
Ender Wiggin, a preteen (he has been described as 10, 11, and 12 in various reviews, and “No,” I haven’t read the book), has been chosen to go to Battle School, a large space station circling Earth, on the basis of his skill at video gaming and the decisions that he makes when bullies try to take advantage of his slight build. When attacked he goes into over-kill mode, his reason being that he wants to hurt his opponent so much that he (Ender) will not just win this fight, but also cause the attacker to cease and desist from any further provocations.
Col. Graff (Harrison Ford), in charge of training the young soldiers-to-be, likes Ender’s thinking beyond the moment and believes that Ender might be the military genius they are looking for to lead the interstellar war they are sure is coming. His assistant Major Anderson (Viola Davis) is concerned as much about what the harsh training methods of Graff will do to the boy as she is to turning out the next Caesar or Napoleon. Thus the two clash at times over how to treat the boy. Graf’s theory behind this emphasis on children leading the war is that they have quick reflexes and are not bound by adult learning that gets in the way of those reflexes. (Hmmm. But then, we must remember that the book was targeted to teens.)
Ender is “a third,” born into a world that has restricted parents to two children. His distant father, a Battle School washout, and his more empathetic mother had to apply for special permission to have him. His older brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) is very hateful toward him, jealous because he also washed out of the school for being too violent. His sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), with whom he has a close relationship, also was dropped because she was more pacifist than soldier. Wherever he goes the boy’s third status is held against him.
At Battle School all contact with family is cut off, which upsets the Major. The children are divided into teams or armies. From what we see Battle School seems like a fascist version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, but with Ender facing far more bullying than Harry. He perseveres, moving from beginning stage up to the point of heading his own team or army. He is able to choose those who had befriended him along the way, including Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), the token female teenaged character. In a training exercise against the army led by his former tormentor Bonzo (Moises Arias), Ender devises a clever stratagem that defeats his opponents in an elaborate laser tag game fought in a large spherical arena, thus convincing Graf that Ender is “the chosen one.” He turns over to the boy and his companions the Command Center Battle Simulation Room.
In the final simulation game Ender leads his team in a pre-emptive strike that calls for the decision to wipe out all life on the Formic’s planet, a move similar to his continuing to kick and beat the aggressive bullies long after they are prostrate upon the ground. Although I little understand all of the jargon and video game moves of Ender’s team, Graf and other military officers observing the youth at war are pleased, with the destruction of their enemy’s planet now assuring the safety of Earth. (People of faith might be reminded of the prophet Samuel’s instruction, supposedly relaying the command straight from God, to Saul that he completely destroy his enemy, women, children, livestock, as well as soldiers.)
Afterward Ender, reflecting upon the act of genocide, visits the ravaged planet. In a scene that could have benefited by the inclusion of some more details (I’m trying not to include too many spoilers) we see that though he has committed a dark (and necessary, Graf insists) act, the boy might not have lost his soul. The empathetic trait, so outstanding in his sister, persists in him as well. The director who gave us the far better Tsotsi, winner of a “Best Foreign Film” Oscar, brings us a film that rises above the usual sci-fi computer enhanced films, one that deals with ideas as well as action. It could have been far better had the characters been developed more, but for getting viewers to think about violence and our reaction to our enemies, it can serve as a good launching pad. Jesus suggests that we absorb the violence and try to transform the relationship: how does Ender and Graf’s dealing with violence compare? Is a pre-emptive strike and genocide acceptable? And at what cost to those who perpetrate them? Not bad for a film based on a book written by a professed homophobe.
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.