Ender's Game (2013) Directed By Gavin Hood - Movie Review
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Set in the future, Ender's Game is a film about a young boy, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who is taken from his family to be trained for a war with an alien species that had twice before invaded earth and was barely repelled both times. The story chronicles his passage through military school under the watchful eye of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford ),and Ender's relationships with fellow students and teachers as he is groomed as the new Napoleon or Julius Caesar for the human race. Ender is constantly tested to see if he could be the commander of Earth's interstellar army.
The film is based on a 1985 book with the same title by Orson Scott Card. The book contains science-fiction elements that are now science fact such as the internet, e-mail, instant messaging, iPad-style tablets, and even video games more resembling World of War Craft and other more narrative single-person-based on-line gaming. These either didn't exist in 1985 or were in their infancy. For many of us they are part of daily life in 2013 so viewers may find these bits and pieces in the film a little underwhelming and a lot less sci-fi. This isn't to say the film lacks the kind of special effects and culture people associate with the genre; there are plenty of futuristic props and special effects in Ender's Game, but perhaps the way they are presented detracts from the story.
Anyone who read Ender's Game earlier in life or even recently will cherish favourite parts, characters, ideas, and/or themes and there are nods to these things throughout the film adaptation. However, when adapting books to film certain things are changed: characters are dropped, change gender or merged into single characters; scenes are altered or cut out because of budgetary concerns. The challenge then for the writer is to get the story across on the big screen in a way that doesn't lose the heart and soul of the source material.
While the book has been popular with children over ten years old and with teens, it's also complex enough for adults and has even been recommended reading for American Marines. Does the film match this range? Is Gavin Hood's film adaptation as accessible to as wide an audience as the book? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Does this make the movie less enjoyable? If viewers come to it with a clean slate and no past experience with the book then Ender's Game becomes a light, popcorn, sci-fi film with a moral message: "It's not just that you win the game (or the war); it's how you win it." Not a bad moral message for anyone— young or old— to consider because in many ways it asks questions about virtue, innocence and culpability (blameworthiness).
That said, reading the book recently in advance of the film's release revealed an angle largely absent from the film—the religious elements. The screen play removes most of this, leaving only one memorable moment when one of the children says a farewell to Ender using the Muslim phrase "AsSalam-u-Alaikum" (Peace be upon you). This could have been used to great affect but wasn't fully explored. Practically all of the book’s “Christian” elements are missing in the film. Is this important? It's hard to say. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon and has come under scrutiny because of his public comments opposing same-sex marriage in the United States. Did this impact the telling of the story? Card is also listed as one of sixteen producers on the film with his name at the top of the list. What does this mean? Could there be more footage not included in the theatrical release, footage containing more of the book’s content? It would be interesting to find out.
Even with some of the original material removed the question remains how well does the film address the material it has included, namely the training of soldiers and the alien life forms? A friend who also attended the screening described Ender's Game as Harry Potter meets Starship Trooper with a smidgen of Full Metal Jacket — but just a smidgen. The tension readers feel at every turn in the book is greatly diminished for instance by the film’s use of the more scientific name Formic for the aliens where in the book everyone, from the military generals to the civilian children, refer to the enemy aliens with a very pejorative term which in some English-speaking countries today is considered very rude and derogatory.
With a PG rating the film simply doesn't reflect the book’s relentless nature, the harshness of the violence, the realism of bullying or the ever-present antagonisms between students and teachers, students and students, and humans and alien enemies. The adaptation could have explored any one of these themes more deeply and by doing so could have improved the film, taking it from popcorn sci-fi fun to thought- provoking social commentary. For example, the theme of bullying is currently on the minds of parents, children, educators and public policy makers. Ender's Game could have contributed to this ongoing conversation in a meaningful way. What this inevitably runs headlong into is the question of the function that film (or any art form) plays in society: is media simply to entertain or is there more to it than that?
Christians watching the film will face questions about the nature of war, the nature of the vocation of the sword, and maybe even the place of children in warfare. With its moral message "It's not just that you win the game (or the war); It's how you win it," Christians will have to consider if the proper response to bullying is violent retaliation or pre-emptively striking out at those who cause harm. Scripture addresses this. Jesus famously says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." St. Paul likewise reminds us about life in the face of trouble when he writes to the Roman Christians: "If possible, so far as it depends on you, llive peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."Ender's Game could be a good movie to begin this conversation with family and friends.
If the movie is enjoyable check out the book, it has more to offer someone seeking to dig further into some of these ideas. On the other hand, if the book is cherished, well-read, and sitting on the shelf at home skipping this film may be an equally wise choice.
Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Formic is a term developed by Card and was first used in 1999's Ender's Shadow. The name is derived from the Latin word for Ant, formica, and in the film it replaces the book’s xenophobic slang term ‘bugger’ used extensively.