Warning: This article contains major spoilers involving the plot of “Ender’s Game.”
Much of the hoopla surrounding the release of “Ender’s Game,” writer-director Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 futuristic science fiction tome, has revolved around the author’s anti-gay sentiments. Whether or not his ideology comes through in the original text, the imperialistic story of “Ender’s Game” celebrates libertarian extremism more than any form of close-minded religious values.
Hood’s snazzy, engaging treatment capably delves into the plight of young soldier Ender Wiggin (“Hugo” star Asa Butterfield) as he’s recruited by the world’s fascistic armed forces for an intense outer space training program to combat the bug-like aliens that invaded Earth decades ago. Yet even while it has the tropes of young adult fiction and accurately portrays the scrawny Ender’s burgeoning ferocity, ultimately it plays up his individualism to the point where he turns against the very system that trained him to fight. That makes it not only the most subversive blockbuster of the year (a sort of “Starship Troopers, Jr.,” if you will) — but also an elegant, if unintentional, allegory for the public narrative of Edward Snowden.
The parallels with the original scenario are so cut and dried it’s a surprise that hardly anyone (save for this essay in The Cassandra Times that draws on the original book) has picked up on them: Enterprising child prodigy is trained by global superpower to strengthen its cause, discovers corruption within and flees to the other side for the greater good. That’s precisely the arc that Ender endures and that has defined perceptions of Snowden’s actions in the press. Hood’s movie works so well because it manages to inhabit Ender’s perspective of the opportunities surrounding him, so that we discover the problematic nature of the world’s military efforts along with him.
The narrative opens with Ender as a lonely adolescent constantly teased by bullies while repeatedly defeating them in military videogame competitions, while the stern Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, putting little effort into the role as usual but at least utilized better than he has been in recent years) monitors Ender’s resolve on a remote monitor. That’s not the only parallel with NSA-level surveillance tactics; once brought onboard the army’s training ship, Ender protests when he discovers that he’s unable to send e-mails. “You have the right to privately think whatever you want,” the colonel tells Ender, “but there’s too much at stake for your unfiltered thoughts to leave this ship.” His look of astonishment at this admission marks the first crucial step in his path to becoming an interstellar whistleblower.
Surprisingly tense if strangely humorless, “Ender’s Game” is certainly the best looking science fiction effort this side of “Gravity,” and presents an extraordinarily detailed world, but Hood manages to position its sleek, beautiful elements in contrast to the darker themes at play. A wide-open chamber where the recruits practice zero gravity combat contains a sense of wonder that only goes so far; when the stun guns come out and the kids rejoice in the possibilities of temporarily paralyzing each other, the mood is more somber and borderline creepy than awe-inspiring.
The effects are similarly provocative in their depiction of the enemy, which for much of the running time remains off-screen, represented solely by a series of drab brown ships that the recruits learn about only by watching military-sanctioned videos of the attacks. This one-sided perspective of villainy certainly reeks of familiarity when considered in the context of Snowden, Wikileaks, and others responsible for rebelling against the ramifications of professed “nationalistic” agendas that dictate how the public sees the world.
However, the biggest piece of the equation that transforms “Ender’s Game” into the world’s first fictionalized treatment of the Edward Snowden story (lord knows we’ll see more of them) revolves around the twist of its final act. It’s here that spoilers are essential, so if you’d like to remain at least a little bit in the dark as to the plot of the movie, you’re better off bookmarking this article and returning to it after you’ve seen the thing this weekend.
Ender’s chief talent that catches the eye of the colonel and his colleagues involves his gaming abilities. Rather than playing by the rules, he constantly defies them by using various dirty tricks to cheat the system. This talent is epitomized during one fascinating sequence in which Ender plays a seemingly basic 3-D game on his futuristic iPad in which he takes on the role of a mouse forced by a menacing troll to choose between two goblets with the knowledge that one of them contains poison. After figuring out that both of them do, he breaks with the game’s logic and kills the troll so he can proceed forward. The colonel watches with glee: Here’s a guy willing to defy the apparent limitations of any given by challenge by simply cutting to the chase.
That mentality comes into play during the penultimate showdown, in which Ender leads an allegedly simulated battle against the aliens’ home planet and manages to destroy the whole thing by using a military ship as bait. While thousands of soldiers are killed as the bugs assail the ship, Ender and his crew get a clean shot at the core of the planet, turning it into a fuming mess. Then comes the shocker: This wasn’t a simulation at all. Ender unwittingly allowed untold innocents to die and destroyed an entire race without realizing it.
After expressing his horror, Ender is told by the colonel that the boy’s ignorance was a necessary evil. “We won,” Graff says. “That’s all that matters.” Ender isn’t convinced for a second. “No,” he replies. “The way we won is what matters.” That assertion leads to the movie’s remarkable climax on the scorched alien planet, where Ender tracks down the dying queen of the alien race and discovers her caring for her unborn child. In the final shot, he has agreed to smuggle the creature back to Earth and already started his voyage.
Does Ender go to the dark side or fight the good fight? The semantics of the scenario make this movie a rather stunning alternative to some of the other ostensibly bleaker genre productions aimed at younger demographics of recent vintage, particularly “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.”
While both franchises deal with mature elements involving institutional problems and burgeoning adulthood, “Ender’s Game” is a coherent missive against the perils of confidentiality, and unless one wants to make the case that it depicts its hero with shades of moral ambiguity — the triumphalist finale suggests otherwise — the plot represents a clear-cut celebration of revolutionary spirit. It also raises a chicken and egg question: Is it possible that Snowden himself was driven to action after reading Card’s book? Either way, anyone in Moscow hoping to spot the exiled man of mystery out and about may want to keep an eye on the multiplex.