Conventional wisdom states that at the heart of every movie lies the question of whether or not people should see the film. Long-time readers may have noticed that I favour a different approach, analysing my personal viewing experience to let you make up your own mind on the matter. This comes in handy when discussing Ender’s Game, which has garnered a fair bit of controversy, owing to Orson Scott Card, the author of the source novel, shooting his mouth off about minorities and homosexuals in particular. To make matters worse, the man has donated to anti-gay organisations, prompting many to boycott his work.
For the record, Ender’s Game, the movie, isn’t part of his body of work, at least not in legal or financial terms. Card sold the rights to his book for a flat fee, meaning that he won’t touch a dime of the box office gross. As for the story, it comes from a different time in the author’s life, one when the horrors of war and military propaganda were of much bigger concern to him than whom a person chooses to diddle. Ironically, his now thirty-year-old space parabola proves more relevant today than his recent ramblings, perhaps because it touches on universal truths about human nature and the social contract our leaders (and the voters) so often take for granted.
Set a little over a century from now, Ender’s Game tells of a space-faring civilisation at war with the Formics, insect-like aliens who once tried to colonise Earth. Eager to end the conflict once and for all, the humans have started recruiting children as potential military commanders, hoping to uncover a strategic mind unencumbered by experience, habit, or grown-up empathy. Instead, they find Ender (Asa Butterfield), a prepubescent boy whose understanding of the world and its politics runs so deep that he can reason his way out of any situation, whether that means using diplomacy or extreme violence.
In the novel, our hero’s trials at command school last nearly a decade. In the film version of Ender’s Game, he seems to get promoted every other day, switching supporting casts no less than four times before the end credits. This rushed pace is, I suppose, an unavoidable concession to stay true to the source material while keeping the same actor throughout (no one wants to see Butterfield with pimple makeup or digital growth spurt effects). However, I also view it as an inadvertent blessing in that the constant change in status quo allows us to partake in Ender’s isolation.
You see, our hero doesn’t excel because he buys into Colonel Graff’s (Harrison Ford) radicalism but because he’s figured out what’s expected of him. “They punish you when you follow the rules,” Ender explains, “and reward you when you use violence.” The way the boy evaluates his surroundings, manipulates his rivals, and still earns the respect of his peers constitutes the main attraction of Ender’s Game, putting forward a beautiful mind and, more importantly, a fascinating prism through which to see the world.
This makes the tragic conclusion of Ender’s Game all the more gripping. I suspect many will see the climactic twist coming, as I did, but that doesn’t matter because we’re experiencing it through the unique perspective of Ender, who’s come to believe that a moral failing is not just a weight on our conscience but a long-term tactical mistake. This challenging message strikes me as particularly resonant in the era of drone attacks and do-or-die political manoeuvres, and writer-director Gavin Hood, best known for not quite saving X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), does a remarkable job keeping the characters’ conflicting philosophies in the forefront while regaling us with wondrous sights and pulse-pounding space battles.
That’s the thing. A boycott won’t directly affect the finances of Card, whose novel has been celebrated for nearly thirty years. It may, on the other hand, prevent Hood from delivering more thoughtful movies like Ender’s Game. You’d also be missing out on a powerful cinematic experience by the way. Now, some may argue that, for all their good intentions, the filmmakers ought to be viewed as acceptable collateral damage in the war against homophobia. In reply to this, I’m inclined to ask whether dispensing indiscriminate punishment is really the best way to effect social change. As with so many things in life, you see, it all comes down to strategy.