I went to see the new film Ender’s Game this weekend. I really enjoyed it. The action was compelling, the acting was just fine…but what really drew me in was the story. Like many, I have read the popular and award-winning book upon which is was based. It’s hard to say whether I enjoyed the movie on its own merits or because of my love for its source material, but having experienced both (as well as other novels in the series) I can tell you it is a transformative story.
Ender’s Game is the story of a future Earth faced with a mysterious but deadly enemy. In response, humanity becomes willing to do whatever it takes to win. Child geniuses are culled from the population and subjected to testing and training. The goal? To find the most outside-the-box strategic thinker in order to defeat the opposing alien race.
Enter Ender, who as a child is taken from his family by the government and subjected to test after test: zero-g games that make laser tag look like a tea party, a computer game that is as violent as it is graphic, and a battle room that would challenge even the fiercest Call of Duty aficionado.
All of these training games, Ender is told, are meant to prepare him and others to remotely control an Earth fleet sent to deal a decisive blow to their alien enemies.
Though originally written in the 1980s, Ender’s Game is oddly prescient of today’s complex world. A place where war is fought against a faceless enemy we don’t entirely understand. Where drone warfare makes the line between combat simulations and actual violence hazy at best. Where the reality and violence of video games, harmless in one sense, may nevertheless be preparatory for devaluation of life all the same.
In the film, this culture of violence is too much for Ender. He wants to stop, slow down, and understand the enemy. The war machine that is Earth has no time for this. No time at all. Like The Hunger Games, the film features a world that is locked in a cycle of violence that it forces its society–children, no less–to fight. Katniss and Ender alike are caught up in this system. Part of their story is an attempt at fighting the seemingly unstoppable force of such a culture. Indeed, perhaps it is their youth that simultaneously allows them to be taken advantage of even as it provides the platform from which to imagine another way forward.
As a 21st-century blockbuster, Ender’s Game has all the requisite special effects and explosions. Here, though, the theme of the film and its source material doesn’t really allow us revel in these big moments. Violence here is not a means to any good end; it just blinds most of its users to other potential options. So devastated is he by what is taking place at his hands, Ender rejects his masters near the end of the film. After a certain victory, his military mentor tells him, “We won, that’s all that matters!” Ender’s retort?: “No. The way we win matters.” A needed response to a world interpreted solely in terms of the zero-sum game.
Much ink (electric and otherwise) has been spilled in writing about the film, not all of it positive. For my part, though, I’ll side with those who see it (and the book series from which it takes its cue) as a piece that calls into question the easy use of violence in which our world revels. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call the story a pacifist one, but it does come close at times.
Words from the original book, paraphrased at the opening of the film, tell us all we need to know about fighting our enemies. Be warned, it reminds us. Violence is possible but never easy. And it always comes with a cost:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.