3 Dec 2013

Ender’s Game: military heroics/heroic military?

By Vincent M. Gaine

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.

On the surface, Ender’s Game appears a fairly gung-ho sci-fi action film, with an establishment scene informing the viewer that the human race was only saved by the noble sacrifice of a great leader. So far, so Independence Day, even down to a fighter aircraft flying into the belly of an alien ship. Yet a more sinister ideology swiftly creeps into the film, as Colonel Graff and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) watch the movements of Ender, literally through his eyes thanks to an implant that he willingly had fitted. Here is dystopia in subtle terms, rather than the devastated environments of Blade Runner or Avatar or the Orwellian oppression of The Hunger Games. Instead we see a public drip-fed a steady diet of militaristic propaganda. Ender’s home life and indeed existence is contingent upon this militarism, as his family discuss the war and humanity’s future over dinner, and children play at fighting Formics. The violence of Ender and his brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) as they play is disturbing, especially since we learn that Peter was expelled from the same training as Ender for being too savage. Furthermore, Ender was only conceived as a possible future trainee, which means that when Graff comes to take him away, the parents have no say in the matter. Children are being bred and raised for their military potential, and subsequently indoctrinated and deceived.

Despite this, Ender’s Game is not explicitly dystopian or overtly grim. Many of the training sequences of Ender and his fellow cadets are enjoyable, reminiscent of teaching and Quidditch sequences in the Harry Potter series. Parallels are drawn between growing up and advancing in training, and the relationships between Ender and his friends are warm and engaging. The zero-gravity war games look like fun, and I found myself drawn into the training of Ender, seeing it as something positive.

Nonetheless, darker elements remain, as Graff arranges for Ender to be isolated as part of officer training, and rivalries develop between the cadets. Ender is cornered by bullies and proves as savage as his brother, as he beats the lead bully badly so that ‘he can never hurt me again’, a justification Graff uses in relation to the war against the Formics. Things take an even darker turn when Ender fights another bully, Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias), in officer training. Bonzo is badly injured and Ender is shocked and appalled at what he has done, but nevertheless does not shirk from combat. Bonzo confronts Ender in the shower room, and Ender prepares by coating his body in soap to make him hard to grip, and turns up the temperature to provide the cover of steam. Ender may be conscientious, but his combat readiness never wavers. Therefore, the training is effective in turning Ender into a dangerous combatant, and our enjoyment of the training sequences becomes problematic and uncomfortable. Zero-G games look like fun, but perhaps a more apt comparison than Harry Potter would be Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), in which the boot camp training dehumanises the recruits, reducing one to murderous insanity. 

Full Metal Jacket, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1987)

Full Metal Jacket has an easy job of being critical of warfare, because the Vietnam War is incredibly controversial and largely seen as senseless opposition to the spread of communism. Furthermore, Kubrick uses horrific images of victims to underscore his critique, something that a film like Ender’s Game, aimed at a family audience, cannot do. Yet here the film interrogates our expectations, as we expect a straightforward tale of good VS evil in a family-oriented, blockbuster adventure like this. Instead, we encounter a disturbing vision of militarism that turns children into killers and where the lines of right and wrong are far greyer than in Star Wars or Harry Potter.

Ender’s subsequent training is undertaken by Commander Mazar Rackham (Ben Kingsley), the hero of the opening sequence who supposedly sacrificed himself to win the first war against the Formics. His heroic death is another piece of propaganda, the man made into a legend because legends are more inspirational than leaders. The most disturbing piece of propaganda comes at the film’s climax, as Ender and his team succeed in their final exam: the apparently simulated destruction of the Formics’ homeworld. This scene is, on the one hand, a dazzling visual feast. Ender’s team of squadron commanders engage the enemy forces, utilise ingenious strategy, and finally deploy their weapon of mass destruction to spectacular effect. Much as in Star Trek or Star Wars, the viewer is treated to the visual pleasure of spaceships blasting away at each other. I imagine that aficionados of video games might gain particular pleasure from the battle sequences, as the vessels are controlled through joysticks and control pads, as well as direct physical manipulation. 

Ender's Game, dir. Gavin Hood (2013)

Even without a background in videogaming, I still found the film’s combat simulations thrilling and enjoyable. However, as the exam approached its climax, I sensed that something was wrong, because why was the film spending so much narrative time and visual spectacle (which is, let us not forget, a significant portion of the film’s budget) on this sequence if it were not the climax of the film? My sense of misgiving was confirmed after the test was completed and the squadron celebrated with jubilation. Once again, this was reminiscent of similar triumphant moments like the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars, the intertextuality made stronger by the presence of Harrison Ford.

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. 

Ender is not the only one horrified by his actions: so are we, in shocking contrast to our earlier reactions. As viewers of a sci-fi spectacular, we expect grand set pieces, space battles and explosions. The film rewards our expectations but with a caveat of ambiguity: we enjoy the spectacle but simultaneously feel uncomfortable. The discomfort is caused by, firstly, children being used as weapons, which plays on our discomfort around the corruption of innocence and exposing children to the horrors of the world. Secondly, the cause is not at straightforwardly righteousness as it could be. It is completely understandable that we defend ourselves and many a film would treat this unproblematically. Ender’s Game, however, asks us to consider whether survival of the human race is justified when the price is so high. Quite apart from the eradication of an entire species, compassion and humaneness are what make us human: the pilots and commanders of the International Fleet sacrifice their humanity for the cause of victory. Much as Rupert Read has argued that humans are made ‘alien’ and ‘other’ in Avatar, in Ender’s Game humans make themselves monstrous, even as they try to overcome what they perceive as monsters. Here be monsters indeed, but rather than looking like giant ants, they look like Han Solo and Mahatma Gandhi!

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. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a really impressive piece: thanks, Vincent.
    Yes, I found Ender's Game disturbing in exactly the way you dissect. For one is made complicit in what has happened. Unless one managed to remain resolutely antagonistic to the militarism and propaganda, throughout; I tried to be (I was wishing and wishing that Ender would find some way of reaching out mentally or physically to the Formics, and so avert the war) but I didn't fully succeed (especially earlier, in the 'war games' in Battle School), and I bet hardly anyone does. The revelation that the final 'game' was no game but the real thing is sickening, profoundly shocking. It puts into question the enjoyment one gets from these games - action / war movies.
    As I was watching the film, I kept having this vague and slightly-disconcerting feeling that the whole thing wasn't real. That there was something dreamy going on; this feeling was of course fuelled by the 'mind game', and so on. But it turned out that, while I was onto something, in having that feeling, the truth was far more sinister, and sort-of 180 degrees in the opposite direction... Far from the underlying truth being, in classic philosophical or sceptical fashion, less real than how things seemed, what was really going on was ghastlily MORE real. One had been fooled into taking something to be just some giant video-game that was actually an ultimate war crime, a total genocide and ecocide. To see this on film and to be enthralled by it and then to have the truth sprung on one: yes, this is film-as-philosophy. (Reminiscent of course of MONSTERS, as analysed by Phil in the founding piece here on _thinkingfilm_.)
    And of such fine creatures; as you say, Vincent, the gentleness of the Formic that Ender actually does encounter at the end is a marvel. (Reminding me strongly of the transformation in how one sees the 'prawns' in DISTRICT 9, as that film unfolds.)