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The end justifies the means. Despite nearly clichéd status, this belief dictates most of the productions that come out of Hollywood. Offensive language, sexual content, violence, and the like are poured into films only for the end of earning the maximum amount of money from viewers who, sadly, welcome or at least support such content.
The theory that the end justifies the means fittingly pervades the content of these productions, as well. Revenge pictures stand as the most obvious examples, but a disturbing number of other films also encourage the message that the way one accomplishes something is unimportant, so long as the end achievement is good or right in the eyes of the beholder. Such ethical fluidity is particularly common among action movies, where the hero or heroine is usually required to engage in violence and other unethical behaviors in order to achieve their admirable goal.
Then along comes Ender’s Game. Thematically rich and thought-provoking far beyond the norm for its genre, Ender’s Game explores the issue of determining ethics in times of war, questioning war itself and the actions taken therein. Violence versus compassion, war versus peace, tactics versus instinct, guilt, anger, forgiveness—these are only some of the important topics explored by this unique film that, so far as the story goes, comes to the right conclusions.
While somewhat marred by small amounts of offensive language, Ender’s Game challenges older audiences to think, search their hearts, examine their world, and challenge the status quo.
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a third child. In this advanced age of Earth, Ender’s parents had to get permission from the controlling government before exceeding the two-child limit. As he grows into a teenager, Ender alternates between thinking he wasn’t “supposed” to be born and understanding that he was born for the purpose of joining the International Fleet that will fight the alien Formics.
Surviving two military conflicts with the Formics has left Earth changed. The people of Earth fear another invasion, like the Formics attempted once before, and therefore focus their efforts on seeking out the most promising warriors to defend the planet. These fighters are not capable adults, but rather gifted children. These youngsters are found and monitored constantly, closely observed as they play video game battle simulations and interact with each other.
Ender is one of these special youths, and he soon catches the eye of the head of the training program, Colonel Graff. Ender is especially gifted with intellectual and strategic capabilities, but Graff and his staff also have to assess other qualities, such as leadership and frustration-tolerance.
After thinking he has failed the program, Ender instead finds out that he is being enrolled into Battle School with the possibility of advancement to Command School if he lives up to his potential. The training program is no easy feat, even for a person as talented as Ender. Graff purposely isolates Ender from his peers by setting him apart as the “smartest” and most gifted. Ender, therefore, encounters much animosity from his own roommates that he must overcome while succeeding in the daunting training program.
The troubles at Battle School and Command School pale in comparison to the challenges Ender faces from within himself. He struggles to find a balance between his two siblings who flunked out of the program. His sister, Valentine, was too compassionate, and his brother, Peter, was too violent. Ender lives in constant fear that he is too much like his brother, turning to unnecessary violence and even enjoying the expression of his rage in that manner.
Graff, on the other hand, worries that Ender may have too much of his sister’s compassion, as Ender starts to wonder what the Formics are like and what they are thinking. Yet, the skill that separates Ender from his peers is his ability to enter the mind of his opponent, thereby being able to predict the enemy’s actions. But to truly understand the mind of another is to love them. Ender cannot find a way to have one without the other. The love that comes with the understanding Ender needs to defeat his enemies may be his undoing…or his salvation.
Some books don’t make good movies. Those that do often lend a depth of complexity, a layered richness that the typical made-for-movie screenplay lacks. Ender’s Game exemplifies the benefit of having literary roots in the film’s nuanced presentation of complicated characters and their sophisticated story.
Ender, for example, is enormously well-rounded and intriguing as a character. He battles against the violent and aggressive tendencies he seems to have and wonders if they are learned from his disturbed brother or are genetic. Ender must grapple with the fear of becoming another Peter while knowing that Valentine was considered too compassionate to be a successful soldier. Is there a balance between the two traits, or is one better than the other?
These are two of the many questions that Ender must contemplate and try to answer as he also grapples with how to respond to bullies, how to be a successful but benevolent leader, and when to obey or resist authority. Most importantly, Ender must determine when acts of war are right and what means to an honorable end are ethical. Graff claims that the “way they win” is unimportant, so long as they win. Even Valentine, the person Ender loves most in the world and a girl known for her compassion, says, “we’ll all be lost” if Ender does not finish his training for command of the International Fleet.
Ender’s journey as he explores these issues leads to many mistakes by him and others. Among other errors, Ender incapacitates two boys when he responds to their violent attacks on him. In one of these cases, Ender starts out defending himself, but then continues with an unnecessarily vicious attack of his own after his opponent is already down. Colonel Graff sees this instance as a positive sign, since Ender explains his actions as a strategy to ensure his victory would secure all other victories with that bully and his comrades.
Ender, however, demonstrates great remorse for his response to the bully and believes his behavior shows that he is more like Peter than he should be. In the second bully attack, Ender responds with more controlled defensive actions, but tragic results leave Ender more in doubt than ever of using violence, even in the self-defense everyone tells him is warranted. These experiences contribute to Ender’s growing doubt that the “way” a win is gained is insignificant.
Viewers, then, become engaged in Ender’s battle of conscience and his difficult thought process, as the film challenges assumptions of who is good or evil, asserting that cruel or unethical actions done for the sake of a tremendous good are never right.
Simultaneously, Ender grapples with the task of trying to know his enemy. Though his goal is knowledge in order to take advantage and defeat the Formics, Ender becomes afraid of succeeding in his effort. He fears that, if he does find a way to enter in the minds of, and fully understand, the Formics, he will love them too much to destroy them.
Through this element of the tale, love moves to the forefront of the film. Out of love for the sister he wants to protect, Ender is driven to perform military service, but love for the enemy may prevent him from doing what he is told is necessary to save Valentine and his planet. Sacrifice for humanity is encouraged on Earth in Ender’s time, but sacrifice or love for an enemy is unheard of. Not so different from the real-life culture in which we live, this exploration of love leads audiences to consider another challenge to one of our own societal norms.
The consequential themes poignantly addressed through the character of Ender owe a significant portion of their impact to Asa Butterfield’s acting. In the lead role, this young actor shows an understanding of his character and the issues of this story that goes beyond his years. While Butterfield appears to be doing nothing remarkable in the more ordinary and lighthearted sequences, the elegance of his performance emerges like the themes of this film—in layers that reveal themselves bit by bit, weaving together into an emotionally moving and impactful whole.
To even understand the difficulties that Ender encounters, the emotions that plague his heart and mind, the decisions he must make and consequences he has to face, would be beyond the abilities of many youths. Butterfield, however, appears to have grasped these elements fully enough to deliver a completely convincing and authentic performance.
Butterfield’s work is amplified not only by a strong supporting cast (which includes big names like Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, and Hailee Steinfeld), but also by production values of the highest caliber. The seamless integration of stunning computer graphics into films has been accomplished in so many blockbusters of late that to remark on the excellent special effects in Ender’s Game almost seems redundant.
Yet such skill in taking full advantage of the storytelling capabilities of modern technology must still be applauded. Ender’s world is one of science fiction, complete with easy space travel, aliens, intergalactic battle, and warring spaceships. Thanks to the use of the visual effects in Ender’s Game, none of these elements compromise the suspension of disbelief or have to be left to the imagination.
With all the film’s positives, Ender’s Game, like its central character, is not perfect. A few relatively mild instances of problematic language ruin what could have been blemish-free dialogue. The Lord’s name is taken in vain once in “my god,” while one use of “a--,” three of “balls,” one of “crap” comprise the other offenses in language. In addition, one of the boys makes an uncouth mother joke that has slight sexual connotations.
As a prominent theme, violence also pervades the film, though not at all to the graphic degree of most action pictures. Ender engages in two fights, the first of which is the most disturbing from a content standpoint. In that fight, Ender continues to kick and punch a boy while he is already on the ground. Not much blood is shown, but viewers do hear realistic sound effects with the blows, including groans from the victim.
In a video game called a “mind game,” Ender is playing the role of a mouse and intentionally kills a villainous character by jumping into the man’s eye and gouging it out. The graphics of this simulation make clear to viewers that they are watching a video game, not reality, and the actual act of gouging out the eye is not shown.
All of these instances of violence, however, are countered by the reactions they elicit. Ender shows tremendous sorrow and regret for all of his real violence, even in the face of advisors who try to downplay or remove his guilt. He learns from these experiences, recognizing that, even when attacked, he could have acted differently.
In response to a boy who asks why Ender killed the character in the video game, Ender explains that he was doing what their superiors at the training school want: “Choose violence, you win.” But out of his encounters with violence, from others and himself, Ender starts to question this teaching, as he slowly changes into a boy who is reluctant to do violence and more interested in compassionate peace.
Despite minimal negative content and the fact that this movie features a teen hero, parents should not be fooled into thinking that Ender’s Game is for their kids. The mature themes and content are enough to make Ender’s Game appropriate only for older teens and adults. In addition to the heavy topics already mentioned, Ender’s Game also addresses genocide, hatred, murder, unbearable guilt, and the dangerous outcomes of unchecked governmental control.
As a modern action film that has more depth than even many dramas, that challenges societal attitudes, and encourages ethics over mores, does Ender’s Game signal the end to Hollywood’s game of ethical compromise? Probably not.
But the uplifting messages of this movie and the reduced harm in the way they are communicated may mark a change in tactics, veering Hollywood away from the industry’s ends and means motto. Perhaps Ender’s Game can show more than its audience that “the way we win,” whether that be living life or making movies, “matters.”
“Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” – Psalm 34:14
Check out these similar titles:
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (Walden Media, 2007)
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm, 1977)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Walden Media, 2005)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!