Earth is eying its end.
It's been decades since the Formic, a race of giant insect-like invaders, tried to colonize our planet―destroying entire countries and killing tens of millions of people. But even though humans eventually repelled the initial invasion, thanks to the late-hour heroic actions of the now-legendary Mazer Rackham, all the years since have been spent living in abject fear of the big bugs' return.
Not even the bravest and brightest of Earth's remaining population have been quite sure how best to prepare for the inevitable resurgence. After all, the Formic, which outnumber us 100 to one, know all our strategies and have probed all our weaknesses. So it's generally assumed that mankind is surely doomed.
But then a twinkling of hope comes courtesy of Colonel Graff. He has a theory. Humanity needs to find someone, he says, who doesn't think the way current military commanders think. We need a hero who can mix equal measures of cunning, ruthlessness and empathy into his strategies. An individual who can run through battles making instantaneous decisions and executing them with video game-like precision.
After years of searching, testing, training and preparing, the colonel is certain that humanity needs a hero exactly like … Andrew Ender Wiggin―a skinny teen who just happens to be the most redoubtable military mind any Junior High School has ever produced.
In a creative way, the movie uses Ender's family dynamic to show how the character of a leader is shaped. For example, because of Earth's war-depleted resources, families are generally limited to having only two children. Ender is the third child in his, a fact that automatically gains him a "less-than" status. "I should never have been born," the young teen worries. But his father assures him that's not the case. "You have nothing to be ashamed of," Dad tells him.
Ender's older brother, Peter, is said to have been bounced from the vital cadet program because of excessive aggression. His younger sister, Valentine, was eliminated because of her overabundance of compassion. Ender, we see, is a product of all their influence, making him humble yet crafty, fierce yet caring and humane. Ultimately that upright combination plays out to grand effect. Even when the colonel shapes situations to put Ender at odds with others, we see how he uses his best qualities to gain friends and inspire followers. We also witness him fighting to control his natural mistrust of anyone who can't think at his high level, especially those who are placed in authority over him. (He's not always perfect at it, but he does visibly rein himself in.)
[Spoiler Warning] There is a great deep space battle, eventually, that Ender and his compatriots are dragged into. The movie doesn't, however, simply spool it out as a typical us-against-them battler. Instead, Ender's deep love for his tender sister comes into play as he weighs the wisdom of being a peacemaker over being a warrior. And by movie's end, Ender dedicates himself to the preservation of an entire species.
Mazer Rackham's face is covered with a tribal tattoo that he got, he says, in memory of his father and as a way to "speak for the dead." A fellow cadet addresses Ender with the Muslim greeting "As-salamu alaykum" (Peace be upon you).
A kid launches a rude, sexually tinged joke at another cadet while they discuss cheating on a test, saying, "Your mother cheated, that's why you look like a plumber."
More violent than sexual, a group of boys approach Ender threateningly while he's in the shower. (We see him from the waist up while naked and wearing just a towel.)
Ender and the leader of that pack exchange blows in the shower before Ender's attacker is doused with scalding water and pushed away to fall and thump his head on a concrete outcropping. (We see him later, unconscious, lying in a medical bay with a medical repair mech working on the back of his head.)
Indeed, up-close scuffles between young cadets are key to this story's overarching messages. In an attempt to toughen him up, Colonel Graff purposefully creates situations in which Ender will be ostracized or disliked by his compatriots. "He must never believe that anyone will help him," the colonel says.
A group of bullies, for instance, corners Ender in a classroom and move in to beat "some sense" into him. After a bit of shoving and the breakage of school equipment, Ender smashes something over the largest teen's head―causing the guy to fall onto some broken glass. Then he proceeds to hit and kick the big kid mercilessly. Ender warns the others off with, "Just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me."
Elsewhere, Ender is punched in the stomach. His brother roughly chokes him. He has a monitor device painfully removed from the back of his head. (It dangles bloody wires.) A large alien creature threateningly puts a barbed claw to his throat. Ender and others thump hard into metal objects and platforms while floating in zero-gravity space.
On several occasions we see great whirling firefight battles between Formic and human soldiers, droids and battlecraft. These frenetic, screen-filling clashes are always explosive and destructive, with crippled craft spiraling downward or erupting in fire and smoke―but they're all seen through the lens of a sophisticated video game or historical film footage rather than real-time, in-your-face war. (No blood or individual death is on display.) We see an entire planet destroyed by a super-weapon.
Orson Scott Card originally published Ender's tale as a short story in the August 1977 issue of Analog magazine. Then he adapted it into a full-length sci-fi novel published in 1985. That book was the first of a series that came to be known as Ender's Saga (or Enderverse). And so this is yet another PG-13 flick that's been ripped from the pages of a popular young adult franchise.
But don't let that last fact lead you into expecting preternatural angst or deep-sighing romance or chiseled dreamboats ready to strip off their shirts at the drop of a hat. Because this isn't that kind of young adult story. Indeed, most of the characters here are skinny, pale kids trying hard not to upchuck in space.
And even though the pic centers around the idea of teens being turned into world-saving soldiers, this isn't really a bloody kids-thrown-into-harm's-way kind of movie either. Even the cadet bullying/fistfight scenes are carefully placed in the intentionally lesson-focused story. (That doesn't make them "easy" to watch, and they certainly shouldn't be ignored, but it does give them meaning.)
What this involving futuristic yarn does best is draw its viewers into young Ender's point of view. And we're inspired by watching a kid who wants to succeed, but who worries mightily over doing what's right at the same time.
After a consequence-laden battle, Colonel Graff tells his young charge, "We won, that's all that matters!" But the conflicted Ender retorts with, "No. The way we win matters."
With that kind of tug and pull, Ender's Game challenges us to wrestle with the politics of winning wars while mulling over what constitutes moral rights and wrongs in a time of crisis. And that's a significantly thoughtful challenge coming from the pages of YA sci-fi. Indeed, I'll close this review by relaying the movie's opening―and quite challenging―quote: "In the moment when I know my enemy well enough to destroy him, in that moment I think I also love him."