Thursday, February 06, 2014

Ender's Game review

I saw Ender's Game the other day, and I thought it was really good.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

I didn't think it was as good as the book, of course, but that's probably to be expected. Otherwise I thought it was quite enjoyable. More or less faithful to the book at least in broad brush strokes.

Great CGI and other special effects too.

Solid acting from Asa Butterfield who played Ender as well as (surprisingly to me) Harrison Ford. In fact, Ford seemed to channel an older, gruffer, somber Han Solo. What Han Solo would've been like had the Rebel Alliance's fight with the Empire dragged on for decades and decades and he had become increasingly embittered. The other actors didn't seem to stand out as well to me, even though they stood out in the book. Like Ender's two siblings. And Ben Kingsley's Mazer Rackham character.

I think the main ideas in the movie (and book) were pretty well done, at least given the contraints and limitations of doing so in an under two hour movie. The relationship between the "games" the kids played which are virtual reality and reality itself such that as the games increased in difficulty so did the distinction between what's virtual reality and what's reality increasingly blur. It might be interesting to compare the role of games for kids in Ender's Game to their role for kids in The Hunger Games. Is there a current obsession with children or adolescents forced to play games with real life-or-death consequences?

Also, at the start of the movie, humanity has its back to the wall against the alien Formics or Buggers. At least they think they do. So they're searching for "the one" who will save them. Of course, they think they've found him in Ender. Their search is a search for a messiah figure. I wonder why messiah figures often feature heavily in SF (e.g. Dune, The Matrix), particularly since SF in many ways favors a very secular scientific outlook. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon, which may help to explain the prominence of the messianic idea in Ender's Game. But speaking broadly, I find it could be quite ironic that a potentially very secular scientific genre like SF would look to write saviors into their storylines. Isn't the idea of a messiah an outmoded idea, better kept in the recesses of ancient history than brought along into humanity's future? But perhaps the longing for a savior transcends all this, and, if so, people can't help but express these hopes and aspirations in story.

Then there's the relationship between the kids and the adults. The kids are cunningly manipulated by vicious adults for militaristic ends, while the kids are at least equally if not more cunning and intelligent and (frighteningly) vicious as the adults. Indeed, this interplay between the adults attempting to manipulate the kids and the kids, especially Ender, responding to their manipulations by total destruction in the end had its climax in the genocide of an entire separate civilization and species. Ender ended it all. (I take it the species are mainly meant as a literary foil for Ender and the rest of humanity. If Card had written Ender's Game in the 1800s, the Formics or Buggers might've been a different human culture or civilization.) It's an eerie reflection of our fallen sinful nature, and as such stands in stark contrast to other books or movies which praise the innocence of children and so forth.

On a related note, there seem at a minimum to be two different types of stories about children: stories which underline their goodness and innocence and stories which underline their evil and corruption. As Michael Bird recently pointed out, there are the Peter Pan stories and then there are the Lord of the Flies stories. Ender's Game somewhat mixes the two, but I think leans more toward the Lord of the Flies type.

In a sense, Ender is the most bullied of all the kids, but he's also the one who, when push comes to shove, out-bullies all the bullies. He doesn't just bully the bullies, but he makes it so they will never ever bully him again. If I recall, this was even more prominent in the book than the movie, wherein the book made it clear that Ender had killed his bullies. Whereas in the movie he "merely" incapacitated them. At the same time, Ender is the one most affected and who grieves most when he does incapacitate his bullies.

It's important to note that Ender has two siblings - a brother named Peter and a sister named Valentine. He considers Peter a cruel killer, whereas he considers Valentine all compassion and love. Indeed, Ender fears becoming like Peter, just as much as he loves and respects Valentine and listens to her such as when she persuades him to continue training to become a commander if it means he might be the one who will save humanity from the Formics. Indeed, Ender wishes to protect and save Valentine, as evidenced in the mind game he plays. But, as we find out by the end of the movie, Ender must become as ruthless as Peter in order to win the war against the Formics as well as protect and rescue his sister Valentine as well as countless other humans, even though Ender hates himself for becoming like Peter. In other words, Ender knows he must annihilate the enemy in order to save humanity. He must become a killer in order to be a savior.

On the one hand, maybe I'm missing something in the story, but I never quite understood this tension. Why is the act of killing necessarily a morally corrupt act? Obviously killing can be totally immoral such as in murdering innocents. However, not all killing is ipso facto immoral. If there is a real and present enemy who is attempting to kill you and your loved ones, then why would there be a moral dilemma over killing him (though I can understand an emotional dilemma over being forced to take the life of another human being), and why would killing him mean you too are a killer in the same sense he is? If he killed you and your family, then he'd be a cold-blooded murderer, but if you defended yourself and your family by killing him as he's trying to kill you and yours, then it'd be self-defense, no? In fact, it'd be wrong not to kill him in order to save your family, or so it seems to me. Why does killing in self-defense make you a murderer too? As such, if the Formics are truly threatening to attack, kill, and/or colonize humanity, then Ender and humanity would be acting out of self-defense.

On the other hand, if two parties are at war with one another, they can make peace with one another. But for starters it would take communication, which in Ender's Game isn't possible because the Formics don't speak as humans speak. Rather, they're telepathically interconnected with one another. Unfortunately Ender doesn't realize this until after he has wiped them out. (Um, oops!)

Similarly, though far from identically, we're at war with God. We're sinners and rebels who have flouted his rightful reign over us. Of course, unlike in Ender's story where Ender could begin to communicate in his mind with the Formics, we are completely unable to initiate any sort of dialogue with God. Now, imagine if God never spoke to us. Never revealed himself to us in the Bible. Never came as the Word made flesh in Christ. We would have no way to make peace even if we were so inclined. God and God alone must initiate the conversation. Otherwise we'd be left to our own devices. And left to rot in our sin and evil, which would eventually overtake all of us. And God could utterly wipe out humanity for rebelling against him. He would be completely just to do so. But instead he took the initiative and communicated with us.

In the end, Ender's ending the enemy wasn't the end of the story, but its beginning. As Ender said: "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." That's a bit hokey to me, but it's faithful to Card's book. Plus, when I first read Ender's Game years back, I found it perplexing at first why after Ender had wiped out the Formics except for a single egg, he decided to take the egg to the far reaches of the galaxy in order to rebuild the species he had just destroyed. It seemed jarring, and seemed not to fit the story very well at all. I think this ending is what most people would probably least appreciate about the film or book. But it does make some sense in terms of Ender's character arc, even if I still don't quite like it. Given the fact that Ender was deathly afraid of becoming as brutal as his brother Peter, but wanted to protect his sister Valentine as well as the rest of humanity, yet guilty over the realization that he had annihilated a species that was acting in self-defense against humans, he wished to make things right, or at least as right as he knew how. Hence he saved the single egg to restart their civilization.

Personally, I think it might've been better had Ender literally sacrificed himself somehow in order to bring peace between humanity and the Formics. That way Ender would've been truer to the biblical messianic ideal. But that wasn't what Card wrote. The movie was faithful to Card's vision.

All that said, I think there were some deficiencies in the movie. I think the main problem with the movie was that it felt rushed. Basically I thought the first two-thirds of the movie were better paced than the last third of the movie. I thought the last third took away from the building character development and thematic elements bits to focus more on quickly driving the plot forward. I wish the movie had spent more time unfolding the events in its last third. (Also, I suppose an ulterior motive may have been to see more cool space battles!)

Anyway, overall I thought it was a fun and enjoyable film. A smart film too, at least as far as these sorts of films go, but I take it that's largely owing to the film not deviating too much from the book on which it was based.


  1. I've enjoyed your other movie reviews Patrick (as well as Steve's). I'm bookmarking this blog so I can read it after watching the movie. I read the 1985 edition of the book in 2010 and loved it. The characters are so human. Unlike many other stories where human nature is sugarcoated. I recommend people who've only read the 1985 edition like me to go and read the added Introduction to the revised 1991 edition. Card's explanation of the origins and reception of the book is intriguing. I wonder if there's a Calvinistic book review in light of the depravity described in the book and of Card's Mormon background.

    I also wonder if the revisioned edition has been toned down in general to make it more palatable to the politically correct. Here's a random difference between the 1985 and 1991 edition which was what led me to discover a revision. It's a passage from chapter 2. I placed the differences in bold.

    "See there, on the toe? That's blood, Peter."
    "Ooh. Ooh, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die. Ender killed a capper-tiller and now he's gonna kill me."
    -1985 edition

    "See there, on the toe? That's blood, Peter. It's not mine."
    "Ooh. Ooh, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die. Ender squished a capper-tiller and now he's gonna squish me."
    -1991 edition

    According to a wikipedia article:
    In 1991, Card made several minor changes to reflect the political climates of the time, including the decline of the Soviet Union. In the afterword of Ender in Exile, Card stated that many of the details in chapter 15 of Ender's Game were modified for use in the subsequent novels and short stories. In order to more closely match the other material, Card has rewritten chapter 15, and plans to offer a revised edition of the book.

    1. It looks like some racism was edited out of the 1991 version according to one article on what claims to be Card's official website HERE. Which is ridiculous. It takes the realism out of the story.

    2. Thanks, AP! I didn't know about all those revisions! Pretty interesting to say the least. Thanks again for letting me (and others) know about it.

      I hope you'll have a chance to post a review after you've watched the movie too. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  2. Patrick said:
    Solid acting from Asa Butterfield who played Ender as well as (surprisingly to me) Harrison Ford.

    I first read that as you saying Asa Butterfield played Harrison Ford... :-P

    1. Lol, sorry! :-) Yeah, this wasn't exactly a very well written review, to be honest! But here's hoping I can blame Bush in order to redirect attention away from my own deficiencies. :-)

    2. BTW, I'd recommend Peter's briefer but much better review of the movie here.

  3. I'm not well-informed about any revisions for the sake of political correctness, but as the number of books in the Ender-verse have continued to increase, OSC has stated on numerous occasions that he will need to make some revisions to earlier material in order to avoid contradictions with later material. He's even recruited some fans from his forums to help with this project from time to time.

    This is especially true with the most recent series, which explores in some detail events that occurred *between* previous novels, and alluded to those events in passing. Basically, some of the allusions contradict the new books (often in basic factual ways: the order in which places were visited, the length of stay, etc.). It's not usually anything terribly germane to the story, but one of the downsides of having your stories be told from the perspectives of super-geniuses is that it's not as easy to fall back on the excuse of "unreliable narrator" when someone finds a contradiction with something you wrote 25+ years ago.

    1. Cool, thanks, Stephen! Very informative.

      I've only ever read Ender's Game. For better or for worse, I've never read the rest of the series. Would you say the later books are as good as the original?