Anti-bullying subtext makes Ender’s Game more than a sci-fi romp

Still from Ender’s Game

Any parent who has ever had an offspring who was bullied knows both the heartache of watching one’s child suffer and the difficulty of guiding said child through the process of learning to protect him- or herself without resorting to retaliatory violence. You don’t want your kid to be a passive victim, or the bully to believe that there will be no consequences for his or her behavior. But you also don’t want to teach your kid that might makes right. You might even want him or her to be able to rise above the desire for revenge. That’s a fine line to walk.

“Standing up to” a bully without adult intervention has long been the standard, socially approved response, and it often works: The bully, testing the intended victim’s limits and finding them, backs down – sometimes. But other times the level of violence just escalates. In miniature, this is how feuds and even wars begin. Even when the targeted child escapes further harassment, the long-term danger remains that, having once internalized the lesson that fighting back can be effective, the bullied may later become the bully.

It’s within this context that Ender’s Game – both the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning book series, much revered by the first generation to grow up on computer games, and the new film based on its first volume – transcends categorization as merely a military science fiction action thriller. The tale of a gifted child recruited to help Earth battle antlike alien invaders, the “Buggers” or Formics, can certainly be enjoyed on that simpler level, but has achieved lasting resonance because it addresses deeper issues about the ethics of war and how preserving the capacity for empathy keeps us human.

And in that context also lie the frustrations of watching Ender’s Game finally come to the screen after decades of delay, while author Orson Scott Card nixed one studio offer after another and wrote no fewer than six screenplay treatments himself. The legions of fans of the book series – the Ender tetralogy and the parallel Shadow series, which tells the same story from other characters’ points of view – know that Ender’s Game itself is a prequel to the more profound saga of Ender Wiggin’s interstellar quest to redeem himself from having been the military catspaw who effectively wiped out an entire species. The first book, focusing on Ender’s formative experiences in Battle School and the ways in which he is manipulated into becoming a cold-blooded killer behind a computer-game console, is just the setup.

In the new movie, directed and with a screenplay by Gavin Hood, a particular disappointment is the diminution of the role of Ender’s best friend Bean (Aramis Knight). He is depicted as just one in a cadre of fellow “launchies” who develop a sense of loyalty to Ender (Asa Butterfield) as the latter’s tolerance for bullying and isolation is repeatedly tested by his manipulative superior officers. Early buzz on the making of the film version had indicated that some of the material in the parallel novel about Bean, Ender’s Shadow, was being incorporated into the movie script, creating anticipation that viewers would get a glimpse into the scrappy smaller boy’s Dickensian backstory and mindblowing destiny.

The product of a genetic experiment, Bean ultimately becomes a more engaging character than Ender himself. But that material apparently got dropped along the way to make room for a bigger role for the female recruit who becomes Ender’s first ally at Battle School, Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld). The only hint dropped in the film that the Powers that Be are tinkering with human reproduction is a passing reference to Ender being an unusual government-permitted third child. If haven’t read the books and you blink, you’ll miss it.

Also missing, in deference to the expeditious unrolling of narrative, is any reference to the influential political roles that Ender’s two elder siblings, sociopathic Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and sympathetic Valentine (Abigail Breslin), play back on Earth as the pseudonymous bloggers Locke and Demosthenes. Given that whole books are devoted to their character arcs later in the series, the filmmakers must have foreseen what many screen pundits are now saying: that the film wouldn’t make a spectacular enough box office debut to warrant the production of costly sequels.

So it becomes necessary to evaluate Ender’s Game the movie in a vacuum (as, some would argue, a film critic always should). And it’s the vacuum of space, or at least its absence of gravity, that gives rise to the action set pieces that work best onscreen. The team-based military exercises in the zero-gravity Battle Room, where Ender vividly demonstrates his genius for speedily grokking his opponents’ strategy and outmaneuvering them, are very impressive and fun to watch. Had it not been for the unfortunate timing of the movie’s release just a few weeks after the state-of-the-art depiction of weightlessness in Gravity, audiences would be coming out of Ender’s Game abuzz about how great those Battle Room special effects were. But we’re already jaded, it seems.

When the action sequences in an action movie fail to deliver the impact that’s supposed to rationalize their astronomical cost, viewers have to fall back on such mundane considerations as the acting abilities of the cast. Ender’s Game certainly packs some big names, with mixed results. In the book, which is written entirely from Ender’s point of view, his commanding officer, colonel Hyrum Graff, stays mostly behind the scenes as he yanks the boy’s chains. The role is beefed up somewhat in the movie to give Harrison Ford more screentime, but it’s hardly his best performance ever. His enthusiasm for the prospects of the promising young recruit is a bit too unguarded right from the get-go; the script has Graff pronouncing Ender “the one” long before the boy has passed the tests of character and reflexes that make up most of the narrative.

More subtle is Viola Davis, who brings quiet gravitas to the role of major Gwen Anderson, the officer responsible for monitoring and tweaking Ender’s emotional state. She does this primarily by giving the boy access to an animated “mind game” – supposedly as a tool for relaxation in his off-duty hours, but actually a way of gaining information about how he’s coping with stress, based on the choices that he makes while playing. The mind-game sequences are beautifully rendered and will make young gamer-geeks drool with envy that such amazing graphics aren’t yet obtainable on their home consoles. But they also provide a key to Ender’s eventual path to redemption, as forces outside the military brass somehow infiltrate the game and influence its content.

The other heavy hitter in the cast is Ben Kingsley as the legendary hero of the previous war with the Formics, Mazer Rackham. Having been long presumed dead, Rackham doesn’t get to make his appearance until the third act. But Kingsley makes impressive use of his limited screentime (and he looks terrific in those Maori facial tattoos). Nonsi Anozie brings a twinkle in the eye to the role of Sergeant Dap, the overbearing boot-camp officer whose bark turns out to be worse than his bite.

That leaves us with the teenaged actor who’s front and center through most of the movie. Asa Butterfield was so wonderful in Hugo that his casting in the coveted lead role here raised high hopes – not least because the skinny youth looks considerably younger than his 16 years (in the books, Ender is only about 6 when first recruited). This reviewer found his performance a little disappointingly one-dimensional. Despite his puny build, Butterfield is much more convincing as the confident, canny young fighter than as the hurting child who misses his big sister or as the morally outraged rebel at the very end. If there ever is a sequel made, he will need to acquire greater depth to bring us the compassionate Speaker for the Dead.

We all know how heavily Hollywood relies on sequels these days, so we may yet get to see Ender Wiggins’ future exploits. But for now, Ender’s Game manages to stand on its own two feet as a reasonably convincing, visually handsome and viscerally exciting sci-fi epic, if not quite as iconic an example of that genre as its literary forebear. And you can still use it as a conversation-starter with the teens and tweens in your life about the best ways to deal with a bully – as well as the high price that you might have to pay if and when you win.



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