Ender’s Game, dir. Gavin Hood (2013)
Is it bad to turn children into killing machines? Of course, what sort of question is that? Is it bad to defend ourselves against annihilation? Of course not, what sort of question is that? Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013) plays these questions against each other in an interesting moral conundrum. In doing so, the film forms an interesting contrast to other science fiction adventures, especially Star Wars (George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Richard Marquand, 1977-2005), Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) and the rebooted Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009) and its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013). Ender’s Game takes place decades after Earth defeated an invading alien force, the Formics. The International Fleet, Earth’s defence force, fears another attack, and trains children as fleet officers because their brains react faster and can process more information than adults. The children command remote fighters through computer control and virtual reality, rather than being actually on the front line. The film focuses on Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a trainee in combat school under the command of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Ender steadily gains in skill and confidence, but also experiences difficulties and even trauma en route to winning a decisive battle against the Formics.
|Full Metal Jacket, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1987)|
|Ender's Game, dir. Gavin Hood (2013)|
|Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, dir. George Lucas (1977)|
Graff’s congratulations to Ender, however, are very different from Han Solo’s ‘Great shot, kid, that was one in a million!’, as the reaction of the senior officers is far more sober than the cadets or, indeed, the audience. Graff reveals that this ‘simulation’ was an actual assault on the Formic homeworld, and is immensely grateful to Ender for ending the war and (according to him) saving mankind. Ender, however, is horrified at destroying an entire species.
The film asks what is justifiable to expect from a sci-fi blockbuster. Ender’s maturation is similar to the journeys of young heroes Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and James Kirk (in the new version of this character played by Chris Pine). These young heroes have an unambiguous heroism about them – Obi Wan Kenobi informs Luke that he must ‘become a Jedi’, while Captain Pike informs Kirk that he sees the ‘greatness’ in him. Kirk, as presented in J. J. Abrams’ version of Star Trek, is unproblematically destined for greatness, mostly down to blind luck and occasional flashes of insight. Similarly, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter must confront, respectively, the Dark Side and the Dark Lord that they are associated with, but there is never any doubt that Luke and Harry themselves are ultimately good. Ender displays conscience to balance his military skill, but he has a very dubious form of ‘greatness’ thrust upon him that gives him nothing but guilt. The heroes of such blockbusters regularly travel into darkness, but Kirk, Luke and Harry remain largely untouched by it, whereas Ender is indelibly stained. As a viewer, we are also stained, because we enjoy the spectacle and action which is bound up with Ender’s development that, surely, we knew was leading towards the attack. We were looking forward to the devastation we see, because that is what the genre offers. Ender's Game therefore performs philosophy by challenging generic expectations and our own enjoyment of violence.