Science fiction started life around the Enlightenment as a conduit for debates about society, about morals and about what makes us human, and what the future might hold, maintaining that same role as our science and technology advanced exponentially over the centuries. Then came its poorer sibling, the sci-fi that was just about the thrills and spills and the effects and action only. The best science fiction of course is a fine blend of the two, of the cerebral and the visceral.
One such novel was "Enders Game" by the Orson Scott Card, which used the familiar sci-fi cliché of the alien invasion of Earth and the pan- national fight back to examine a very real but troubling dilemma which affects any nation that considers itself to be "modern" and "civilized", which is that often in order to protect those very things, we, or those entrusted to defend us, have to embrace the opposite of all our values. The young men and women we take and train to kill without hesitation and mercy, to risk death and injury while taking life, then expecting them to return home and be normal. But to abandon that duty of defence may leave our values and our futures at stake, and so by doing nothing lose everything. Is there even a correct answer to this conundrum, and if not then how can we handle the conflict that arises?
After many years as "an unfilmable novel" it finally arrives as an impressive medium budget movie. Director Gavin Hood, who helmed the mess that was "X-Men origins: Wolverine" 4 years ago redeems himself on the sci-fi front by delivering a film that is at once spectacular looking and narratively flowing and gripping, while at the same time not flinching from the dark, sombre heart of the story.
The plot takes place 50 years after a devastating attack on Earth by highly evolved Ants called "Formics" who were looking for new colonies to deal with their chronic over-population, an invasion repulsed thanks to an "ID4" style manoeuvre by legendary pilot Mazer Rackham. What was left of us evolved into a highly advanced, but highly militarised society with interstellar capability and fleets of high tech space cruisers. The military realised that the best minds for strategy where those of children, who were gifted in intuition and daring thought lost in conventional upbringings, and so train the young at tough military academies, selecting the best for officer command. The brightest star is young Ender Wiggin ("Hugo"s Asa Butterfield) who is targeted by chillingly utilitarian General Graff (Harrison Ford) who subjects him to often horrifying mind games, putting him into conflicts with the other cadets around him, isolating him and putting his back ever further to the wall. The only one to help is psychologist Anderson (Viola Davis) who knows that she is complicit in the warping and destruction of the souls of children even if it is to a greater good. He makes enemies but also friends, chief among which is Petra (Hailee Steinfield) When he shows brilliance at the zero gravity team war games, a fight with another cadet ends in tragedy and Ender turns his back on everything, being especially conflicted by the fact that his unique understanding of Formic thought and culture makes him empathise with the very ones he is to destroy. Using his beloved sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) as leverage, Ender is given command of a fleet positioned off the Formic homeworld, with Petra and his friends as his team, where a massive military build-up is terrifying the veteran top brass into a strategy of all out aggression. Here he is taken under the wing of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) himself. As the big attack on Formica approaches, Ender begins to feel some of the Formics are trying to communicate with him telepathically. Can peace prevail, or can only one race be left standing? And even if they win, what will be left of the soul of Ender and his team at the end of it?
The special effects are impressive, even if most of the "big battle" stuff is in the trailer. The excellent cast all do justice to their characters and their struggles, and every part from the major to the minor are well filled and directed. The film also updates the sentiments to our current world, not hiding the obvious fact that we are all living out this dilemma right now but without giving simple answers. "Star Trek", which was the modern home of ethical dilemma sci-fi, attempted to grapple with similar questions in this summer's "reboot" instalment "Star Trek into the Darkness", yet did so with all the clumsiness, lack of skill and tracing paper thin profundity typical of what now calls itself "Star Trek". This film on the other hand treats it as the REAL series that Gene Rodenberry created would have. It also evokes thoughts of some of the higher end Japanese Manga and Anime, who use a similar set up and youthful military elite in their dark, ethically troubled tales.
Not the fun, exciting happy go lucky movie for kids that some of the marketing suggests, it is instead a deep, warm, troubling, thrilling, moving, spectacular film that is suitable both for adults (despite the juvenile cast) and for teenagers and children (8+) who will hopefully be introduced to the ideas and questions it raises, and will find themselves stimulated to form their own answers, as they must inevitably do some day.
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