The boy who would be savior: Meet Ender Wiggin, the tortured young hero of ‘Ender’s Game’

November 7, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 7, 2013

The marvelous science fiction film Ender’s Game is all about confronting the Other — the menace presented to us by external figures and forces. But it is also about its protagonist’s confrontation with the darkness within himself.

The eponymous Ender Wiggin is a prepubescent boy, perhaps 12, who is being groomed to command humanity’s starfleet. Wiggin’s destiny, perhaps, may be to direct Earth forces in their battles against the Formics, buglike aliens who killed millions in an invasion some 40 years prior to his birth.

A brilliant but poorly understood sacrifice by pilot Mazer Rackham is credited with turning back the invading forces. Now the International Fleet has staked its hopes on finding a young man or woman who fits a certain profile — capable of processing vast amounts of information intuitively and instantly, skilled in the arts of war yet not deriving pleasure solely from the act of violence.

Wiggin’s older brother, Peter, was dropped from Fleet’s youth training program years ago for being too aggressive. The family’s middle child, Valentine, was dropped for being too compassionate. As Col. Graff, the head of Battle School, explains to Ender, humanity’s hopes rest upon the youngest Wiggin striking just the right balance between those two extremes.

Even if he weren’t considered the species’ last best hope, Wiggin would be shouldering a great deal of pressure. He is a rare third child, which his parents were evidently granted permission to conceive because of their extraordinary genetic profile.

Although all students in the orbiting Battle School space station are cut off from the outside world, Graff further isolates Wiggin by publicly praising him, which fosters jealousy amongst the other students. That’s but one of many tactics the gruff colonel has of testing and developing the youngster’s mettle.

In short, although Wiggin is smart and disciplined, nothing about his life is easy.

Writer-director Gavin Hood, who helmed the 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, here works off of an acclaimed 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card, which I loved but last read many years ago. To the best of my recollection, Hood’s story tracks the book fairly closely; certainly the key plot points that I recall are present.

The middle act of the movie revolves around the Battle Room, a voluminous microgravity sphere in which small quasi-weightless armies and toons (short for platoons) of children battle one another. Wiggin quickly masters the tactics needed to vanquish stronger and more experienced foes while simultaneously learning how to navigate the minefield of peer politics.

But while his ascent is rapid, it does not come without struggle. Wiggin clashes with children who threaten his progress as well as with Graff. He also grapples with a powerful sense of guilt over the harm he sometimes inflicts upon others.

While Graff is eager to find Wiggin’s limits, the child himself isn’t so sanguine about his flirtation with behavioral extremes. Nor is the school’s psychologist, Major Gwen Anderson, who repeatedly warns Graff that his machinations might leave the child irrevocably broken.

The picture’s final act concerns a series of deep-space battle simulations that Wiggin must conquer in order to graduate and assume command of the Interstellar Fleet’s forces. These engagements are staged at Command School, an outpost on a distant planet once controlled by the Formics. The unsettling nature of this environment is initially enhanced by Wiggin’s odd new mentor; later, it is re-emphasized by a pair of revelations that shake Ender and his world-view to their core.

One reason that the novel Ender’s Game was so phenomenally successful was that its characters and themes resonated so strongly with its readers; many of them, including me, resembled Wiggin in that they were intelligent but socially awkward youngsters who pictured themselves as being destined for great things. Ender’s Game provides these people with a marvelous revenge fantasy, although it’s a much more nuanced work of art than that label suggests.

Will this film resonate with a wider audience, including those who were alpha dogs in middle and high school? Perhaps not. But for my money, Ender’s Game is the best science fiction film I’ve seen in 2013.

Riddick was fun and cool, but it was simply an action movie — an exercise in violence for violence’s sake, with no deeper message. Pacific Rim and Superman were similarly action-oriented, but less successful outings, to my mind. Gravity is visually astounding and exciting, but ultimately it offered little in the way of deeper character or meaning for the viewer. Elysium featured a fine mix of action, story and character, but its excellence was marred by an ending that was simply too pat.

With its blend of character, action, narrative tension, visual wows and, yes, vital messages about how important it is to find the right balance between aggression and compassion and to respect differences in others, Ender’s Game made a big and very positive impression on me. Science fiction buffs and those interested in psychology (especially that of teenagers) and the morality of violence should definitely watch it. I think they’ll find the experience very rewarding.

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