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'And a little child shall lead them'

A much beloved novel (which I have read), the complex tale of “Ender’s Game” has come to the big screen, and with it a curious exploration of morality in war, utilitarianism, the ends justifying the means – or not – the role and justification for violence, and much, much more.

In an unusually faithful, if condensed, adaptation of the book, “Ender’s Game” the movie takes viewers to a future Earth, where a thwarted alien invasion has left humanity scarred and terrorized by the thought of the aliens returning to “finish the job.”

Sacrificing their freedoms for security (oops, there’s another theme the story explores) the people of Earth have allowed a Big Brother-type military to examine and test their children to find those best suited to lead a counter-offensive before the aliens can strike again.

And herein lies the book’s big twist: The military determines children are the best commanders for Earth’s interstellar fleet, due to their ability to rapidly process complex information and think outside the box – essentially the notion that war in space resembles those video games that are infinitely too complex and fast-moving for adults to enjoy.

Enter A. Ender Wiggins (portrayed brilliantly by actor Asa Butterfield), a young outcast from an exceptional family who seems to possess just the right combination of his sister’s empathy for others and his brother’s cold and strategic brutality when under threat. This boy, the gruff Colonel Graff (played by Harrison Ford) determines, is the perfect choice to be trained to eliminate the alien menace.

But how hard should he be trained? How hard can you push? With the clock ticking and a suitable commander for the Earthling invasion of the alien home world needing to be found, is Colonel Graff’s win-at-all-costs mentality justified?

At one point in the film, Graff is challenged that it used to be illegal to recruit children younger than 15.

“When the war is over,” Graff responds, “we can have the luxury of debating the morality of what we’re doing.”

With the very existence of the human species on the line, is Graff right?

Meanwhile, the story’s real conflict is in Ender himself, who desires to live in peace, but finds himself forced to fight to defend himself. Worse yet, as he’s younger and weaker than those around him, self-defense isn’t sufficient; he must crush his enemies before they can crush him. But is that a moral justification for his brutality?

In a climactic confrontation, Ender is told to win, “That’s all that matters.”

“No!” he cries back. “The way we win matters!”

The film is rife with these dilemmas, with gut-check moments of conscience and questions.

Yet despite its themes of military and war, outside of some throw-away lines on population control, the film (like the book) avoids the leftist politics many have come to expect from Hollywood. It avoids taking a pro- or anti-military stance. Rather than morphing it into some commentary on George W. Bush and the Iraq war – which would have been easy, given the story’s themes – or Islam or anti-colonialism or some such thing, the director stayed true to the novel, which is more a challenge to the conscience than an effort to brainwash it.

The end result is a solid, entertaining and thought-provoking film. Good acting, solid pacing, a riveting and complex story and some great visual sci-fi action make “Ender’s Game” one of the better films of the year so far.

Content advisory: