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February 10, 2017

VGFlicks: Ender's Game (Part 1)

One of the earliest novels to make mention of anything resembling video games is Ender’s Game. Orson Scott Card’s science-fiction story is, at its base, a version of the “humans versus aliens” plot with focus on what humans do to prepare for war, although he touches on various other themes. Many sci-fi stories try to explore the evolution of technology and how it affects day-to-day lives. Whether it’s the more hopeful, Disney-like tales, or the darkest episodes of Black Mirror, we’re shown a world that isn’t ours, but could be ours, whether it’s in ten years, in twenty years, in a century… or just around the corner. Along with all the repercussions of technology, both positive and negative. Or, in some cases, what current technology will be like if we allow it to continue where it is heading.

The original book was published on January 15th, 1985. That same year, the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America, on October 18th. When Ender’s Game came out, video games were already a thing, but they certainly weren’t as widespread as they would be merely a year or two later. As such, Card’s depiction of futuristic video games is fairly interesting. In the era of 8-bit consoles, he not only predicted high-definition games, but he also predicted computer gaming and simulation gaming (That said, he also made many predictions that turned out false, but I’ll come back to those in due time). It is quite interesting, really, to observe this imaginary depiction of what games in a far future would be like, only to compare with the modern world and see that, aside from a few differences, we’re already there. Granted, before being a story about technology of the future, it’s a story of intergalactic battles between the human race and an invasive alien species…

It is also a little difficult to discuss this story without mentioning Orson Scott Card’s strong outspoken stance against homosexuality, which has turned off more than a few people away from his works. I will try not to discuss this too much, mostly because it is completely unrelated to the story of Ender’s Game itself. It does beg the question on whether or not one should avoid certain authors or artists based on their political stances. I personally would refuse to take a look at this story if it was a blatant anti-gay message parading as a war between humans and aliens, but as I said, this book and this movie do not contain anything that could point to that controversy. Therefore, I acknowledge that it is an iffy story to discuss, but I feel like there is nothing linking the plot to Card’s controversial views. I strongly disagree with the guy, and believe that his stance is outdated and close-minded (ironic, considering he wrote science-fiction, one of the most progressive genres out there if not THE most progressive), but that is all I will say on the matter. There goes my disclaimer, and now that this is out of the way, let’s get on with the actual story. Keep in mind that I am reviewing the film more than the book, but I have read the book, so I will often explain some things that were left out of the adaptation.

The film opens as we are presented the central conflict: A race of insectoid aliens dubbed Formics attacked Planet Earth. They were repealed, but with heavy losses for the humans. In preparation for what the humans think to be an inevitable counterstrike from the Formics, space travel and combat became the fields of technology that had major breakthroughs. After all, most of the advanced technologies we own today can have their origins traced back to previous wars. It only makes sense that, in the Ender’s Game universe, technology has evolved first to fend off the invaders and save mankind, second to benefit mankind. I should also note that, while in the movie they keep the name Formics, in the original book, humans have taken to calling them Buggers. I don’t know, maybe director Gavin Hood thought it would be too negative?

All it took was one small human ship ramming into
the alien mothership for the whole armada to go
With the ever-present menace of the Formics’ return, the military is now preparing children for intergalactic warfare. These kids’ lives are split between preparation for zero-gravity combat and the various strategic formations employed by the military in the war. Oh, they also spend their time learning about the first Formic war, and the exploits of Mazer Rackham, the soldier who sacrificed himself by sending his ship right into the main Formic ship, destroying it and stopping the invasion. Nowadays, Colonel/Battle School Principal Hyrum Graff (played by Harrison Ford) oversees the training at the Battle School along with Major Gwen Anderson (played by Viola Davis), and is in search among these children of the next perfect general who would assure mankind’s victory in a Formic counterattack.

Very convenient that when looking through Ender's eyes with the monitor,
all that Graff sees currently is the video game played by Ender, and not
everything seen by the kid, like the table, the surroundings, the other player...
Nope, apparently it only records the screen Ender is playing on.
Convenient, no?
There is one kid he is interested in: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (portrayed by Asa Butterfield), third child of a modest family. "Third child" is important because in this post-alien war Earth, laws regarding population control were passed, reducing to two the maximum number of children a family can have. As a result, third children are frowned upon and usually treated like crap at school by all those who aren’t third children. Sheesh, back in my days, they made fun of you for what you looked like, for your clothing, for your social status, for your implied lack of wealth, for your social ineptitude, for being too smart, or for your man-boobs, but mocking someone for being the one-too-many child of a family, that’s new.

It’s also interesting since Andrew’s siblings were examined as well by Graff to become potential generals. Unfortunately, his older brother Peter was judged too sociopathic to be suitable for the role, while his older sister Valentine had too much compassion. AKA, two extremes. Sheesh, I feel sorry for the parents. Judging by this, Peter would be the kind to do only No Mercy routes in Undertale, while Valentine would aim for Pacifist from the get-go… and Ender? That is the question: Which side would he veer on with proper training?

Huh, Orson Scott Card also predicted iPads.
At the start of the film, Ender is shown defeating another player in a spatial dogfight simulator, by estimating the trajectory of asteroids and sending his opponent to get crushed between two of them. As they’ve done with most children, Graff and Anderson have been viewing Ender’s performance through a monitor attached to the back of his neck, and what they’ve seen makes Graff confident that Andrew is the right candidate. So wait, does that make him a “Chosen One” since Graff chose him? Ah, whatever. As a result, Ender’s monitor is removed.

Yes, that's Ender in the background. Yes, that's a bully on
the forefront. He got what he deserved.
That’s little consolation, since Ender then gets picked on by the asshole he defeated in the dogfight game, and his entire group of asshole friends. Gee, good to know that in the far future there will still be gamer bullies. 2014, 2194… same difference! Ender manages to get the lackeys to let him go, and then beats down the main bully with a nearby science lab decoration, badly injuring him. Later, Ender confesses to Valentine, but is then attacked by Peter. Did I mention that Ender’s brother is a sociopathic asshole? No? I swear, this is a world of assholes. Did I mention Peter almost chokes Ender to death? Christ, get that guy in a straightjacket, toss him in a padded cell before he does irreparable damage to the world!

Graff and Anderson show up at Ender’s place, asking him about his behavior with the bullies. “Knocking him down was the first fight,” he replies; “I wanted to win all of our next ones too.” I get the idea behind that, and it’s exactly what the Intergalactic Fleet wants: Someone who will aim for victory, and make sure that said victory is so crushing to the opponents that they never come back.

Soon Ender might be able to trust only in himself.
Good thing he seems able to make friends, still.
And thus, Ender is accepted into Battle School. He’ll come aboard with the other selected children, but from the start, we can feel that something is fishy. Colonel Graff is already treating him like he’s better than the others… in front of the others. Okay look, I’d better say it right away: Graff is trying to set up a climate of constant tension around Ender, by singling him out, isolating him from the others. The first step is to make him the tall poppy, the one that others want to beat to prove they’re better. And it’s working, as some are annoyed by Ender’s presence and the honors he is already getting without having proven a damn thing yet at the Battle School.

Very impressive indeed.

Never has a school for kids ever felt more like a university.
I am suddenly compelled to ask that guy in the center for
an autograph, it's like I've seen him before...
We get to the School, a massive and impressive space station. We meet Sergeant James Dap, who oversees Ender’s group of “launchies”, we see what the theory classes at Battle School are like, then we see what the practice lessons are like. And boy is it awesome: The giant sphere that forms part of the Battle School is a zero-gravity playground with floating obstacles. This first voyage into the playground sees the cadets try zero-gravity flight for the first time, and it must be a glorious experience. Of course, I can’t tell, I have never been in such a situation.

Bean and Ender, chatting it out in a 0G environment as
if it was nothing.
In there, Ender chats with Bean, one of the cadets who took the same shuttle to come to Battle School, and the two notice that the fancy weapons on their belts shoot harmless blasts. By shooting at each other, they find out that these blasts cause their suits to freeze up, paralyzing their body parts, or if shot to the chest, paralyzing their whole body. This already looks more promising as a sports activity than a lot of fictional sports out there. It’s already better than Whackbat, that’s for sure!

We get the actual rules: This playground will pit the teams between each other, in a Tournament sort of way. Both teams fight in the zero-gravity environment, using the freezing guns. A team gets 1 point for a limb frozen on a member of the opponent team, while freezing an opponent’s chest nets 6 points. However, the scoring could well be moot: A team automatically wins if one of its members manages to make his or her way to the opposing team’s entrance. It’s like the Golden Snitch of the Battle School sport. Okay, this already looks a lot more interesting than Quidditch!

Well, it IS called Ender's Game after all, even if there are
multiple types of games involved.
I bother giving a lot of importance to that sport and the other activities around the Battle School because, from that point on, and for the next hour, most of Ender’s life will revolve around that game. This is where he’ll make friends, make enemies, become loved, become feared. Of course, life goes on at Battle School, and Ender is still allowed to send e-mails to his family.

Talking about Valentine and Peter, it’ll be a while until we see them again in the film, but the book expands on their side of the plot: While Ender’s gone, Peter hatches a plan involving the blogosphere. He and Valentine will start blogs discussing major social, political, economic and international topics, and always respond to each other, bringing arguments and discussion, usually clashing in their views. Basically, pretending to be great thinkers and sharing their own ideas, because this is a world where blogging is serious business.

This is where Orson Scott Card got it wrong: Blogs never became that important. In the original Ender’s Game, blogging is such an important phenomenon that bloggers are treated like celebrities and their opinions are regarded highly, discussed on television and such. Compare this to the modern real world, where anyone can start a blog – scratch that, anyone can start a website – about their ideologies or beliefs, even the most extreme ones, and be lost in the sea of billions of websites out there. Nobody should take no-name bloggers seriously in today’s world, especially the ones who discuss political, economic or social topics with an extremist point of view. In fact, in the original story, Peter and Valentine’s masquerades as high-profile bloggers goes so far as to engineer a new global war. In the real world, anyone can start blogs or sites to spread their beliefs, from neo-nazis to anti-vaxxers, passing by nihilists and domestic terrorists spreading their own dangerous views, and social media today has made it incredibly easy for these people to get together. Confirmation bias does its thing and soon, actual studies based on facts are ignored to the profit of conspiracy theorists and other folks who believe they know better than people with actual doctorates and researches to their name. Before we know it, we are in a world where facts no longer matter, all that matters is the sentiment and the impression, and everything else is second. Even the truth is buried under lies, from the people who speak for the leaders, they might as well invent new tragedies that never happened to justify their stances. Fake news fester and influence people, usually for the worse, while the more extreme sentiments spread and cause division, inequity, and hatred. And before we know it, we’re about to jump off the slippery slope by bringing individuals renowned for spreading hate speech into positions of power, all the way to the highest spheres of leadership, including presidency and…

…Holy fucking shit.

I… I think I’ll go write Part 2 of this review now. Let’s… uh… conveniently ignore that big paragraph I just had. Um… Yeah, I’ll move on with the plot in Part 2. And… yeah. Might as well take out the booze while I do.