By now, I’m sure you have heard about the long, winding road Ender’s Game took to the big screen. Despite the best efforts of some accomplished Hollywood filmmakers, it has taken 28 years for the adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s young adult book to finally be made. So why now? What has changed that made this property, once thought to be unfilmable, suitable for the big screen? Some will point to the success of The Hunger Games, which, with its similar themes, archetypes, and settings, probably helped convince Hollywood financiers Ender’s Game could be a hit. But in looking at recent trends in both action movies and current events, there is another theory worth considering: maybe mainstream America just wasn’t ready for the film’s anti-war message until now.
There was a time long ago when the American action hero knew only winning. His onscreen journey was a predictable one: defeat a foreign foe, win the affections of a pretty girl, and return peace and order to the homeland. The setting may have changed with the times (from the American West to the battlefield to the inner city), as did the villain (the Indian to the Nazi to the Communist), but the end result never varied: the hero bested the bad guy with good old American might and ingenuity.
This self-perception of invincibility was not arrogance; it was simply a reflection of America’s experiences in the theaters of war. For the first seventy years of the film era, America never lost a war, so neither did our film heroes. But in the Vietnam Era, cracks began to show in this façade, and the filmmakers of New Hollywood reflected them. Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man subverted key conventions of the Western genre by positing that maybe Indians weren’t villains, while domestic thrillers like 3 Days of the Condor and The Parallax View suggested that perhaps the enemy was within. But rah-rah patriotism returned with Reagan and his escalation of the Cold War, and it appeared that the unbeatable action hero was back to stay.
9/11 changed all that. After a brief surge of patriotism, the American public began to sour on the War on Terror, and the tortured superheroes of the 21st century reflected a new ambivalence towards the use of military force. Tony Stark grew disillusioned with selling weapons and opted for altruism. Batman pondered the efficacy of fighting terror with extra-judicious means. But this year, ambivalence has become reluctance, and both Hollywood and the American public have turned on military intervention and the War on Terror.
Just look at Iron Man 3, White House Down, and The Lone Ranger, which each featured greedy war mongers as their antagonists and depicted war as being falsely manufactured to increase corporate profits (although only White House Down called these interests the name we use these days: the military-industrial complex). Star Trek Into Darkness featured a similar narrative, although the false path that the crew of the USS Enterprise found themselves treading – hunting down a terrorist hiding in a cave a la Osama bin Laden – was not put forth by war mongers; rather, it was the result of a gung-ho military leader manufacturing a “casus belli” in a sought-after war. Now, Ender’s Game treads eerily similar ground, although its ultimate takeaway is actually far more radical than any other blockbuster released this year.
Of course, the film is not what it first seems to be. The opening ninety minutes of Ender’s Game are so militaristic you might not be able to tell if it is a throwback to the hyper-patriotic action movies of the 1980s or a Starship Troopers-esque satire of them. In opening voice-over, we learn that the Earth humans have survived a failed alien invasion, and a generation of youngsters are training for the inevitable second attack.
9/11 is invoked in the motivational posters featuring grieving Americans – they read “Never Again” and “We Remember” – visible in the training school. Ender goes through a series of simulations intended to train him for a leadership role in the impending war, but (major spoiler alert) a third act twist reveals that the simulations were actual battles, and Ender has unknowingly destroyed an entire planet of aliens that may not have actually been planning another strike. Ender storms off, disillusioned with the military and in search of peaceful redemption.
What really separates Ender’s Game from the other progressive blockbusters of the 21st century is its consistency. Those other films reflect our ambivalence towards military might, but they still revel in the violence they claim to be condemning. Despite the progress we have made, American audiences still want to see the bad guy go down, so they all conclude with the hero soundly defeating the villain, an act of violence that inevitably cancels out any purported anti-war message. Further, they invariably feature high body counts, often lingering over their bloodshed to offer some titillation to their teenage audience.
Ender’s Game breaks from these patterns in significant ways. First of all, it contains zero gore. The action sequences are all simulations (or at least they appear that way at the time), so there is no onscreen killing to titillate its teenage audience. But perhaps more notable are the actions that Ender takes in the film’s final sequence. After learning the true nature of the “simulations,” he quits the military and goes out to seek peace with the tribe of people he has decimated. Unsurprisingly, the message that Ender’s Game leaves the audience with – that war is not the answer – was a tough sell on the studios. Writer/director Gavin Hood recently shared with Matt Patches of Grantland the response to the film’s ending from one studio chief: “One of them famously said that they liked the script but they didn’t understand the twist at the end. ‘Why can’t he just kick the aliens’ ass? That’s how these movies end.’”
One could argue, however, that the filmmakers’ choice to have Ender opt for peace was not a political one but instead a natural fit for a film aimed at children and pre-teens. That’s valid, but Hollywood was not always so considerate. Back in those militaristic ‘80s, Hollywood gave us Red Dawn, another film aimed at teenagers. Essentially a feature-length recruitment ad for the armed forces, Dawn was the first film to earn a PG-13 rating; despite being the most violent film ever made at the time (The National Coalition on Television Violence found that it contained 134 acts of violence per hour), the MPAA ensured that it could be seen by children without a parent’s supervision. But that was a different time; we knew who our enemies were then, and it was a lot easier to rouse ourselves into a jingoistic fervor.
These days, we’re not so keen on war. In the last few years, the public demanded withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the lack of a clear victory. And this year we saw a swift, overwhelming rejection of a proposed military strike on Syria by the American people, our allies, and, eventually, Congress. With the actions Ender takes in the film’s final moments, the film reflects this new American reluctance towards pre-emptive military action.
Still, we have not turned into a nation of doves. Militaristic movies still have an audience. Stallone and Schwarzenegger are still churning out action movies for the alpha male, as is their heir apparent, Jason Statham. Director Peter Berg makes unabashedly pro-military films like Battleship and the upcoming Lone Survivor. Oh, and let’s not forget last year’s Act of Valor, which was produced by the military and featured real-life Navy SEALS. But these films increasingly appeal to a niche audience, and the tentpole movies are inching closer and closer to a pro-peace message. Ender’s Game could be indicative of things to come. It might even be leading us to a better future.