Here we are: the final post of my film criticism series. While the prior one focused on Arrival and its rejection of nihilism, today’s discussion on Ender’s Game, Gavin Hood’s 2013 space-war film, concludes my exploration of the science fiction genre.


“What were they thinking?” ponders Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) upon the revelation that the war simulation in which he wiped out an entire alien species, the Formics, was indeed real. Lamenting his xenocidal atrocity, he wishes he had been given the chance to have a dialogue with the Formics in order to understand them and their reasons for attacking Earth fifty years prior. Adapted from the iconic, eponymous novel as well as its pseudo-sequel Ender’s Shadow, Ender’s Game explores themes of (non)violence, otherness, and empathy. Through its denial of science fiction’s trademark xenophobia and its connections to real-world wars, Ender’s Game asserts that communication is the key to preventing violence.

While science fiction films tend to affirm xenophobia, Ender’s Game does so temporarily only so that it may reverse this trope. One of the sci-fi genre’s most pervasive and recognizable narrative archetypes is the alien-invasion story. These tales prey on fears of the Other by featuring exaggeratedly nefarious, destructive, and monstrous invaders from other worlds. Battleship (2012, dir. Berg), A Quiet Place (2018, dir. Krasinski), and Independence Day (1996, dir. Emmerich) are among the myriad cinematic examples. These aliens are almost always faceless and nameless; they look identical to one another and are united in their evilness with no distinctive personalities. Ender’s Game is no exception: the Formics, commonly referred to as “bugs,” are a speechless hivemind who invade Earth with swarms of identical ships. In fact, until the film’s final sequence, no Formic’s face is shown at all outside of a single dreamlike scene. And when a Formic is seen, she looks like a huge, terrifying insect; she has four pure-black eyes, six spider-like legs complete with pincers, and horn-like protrusions emerging from her head and upper body. Much like Arrival’s Heptapods, whose towering, ambiguous shape and booming, indiscernible speech evoke the uncanny, the Formics are meant to be perceived as threatening monsters. But, just as the Heptapods are revealed to be friendly and peaceful as Louise (Amy Adams) comes face-to-face with them and learns their language, the Formics are shown to be more emotionally complex in the final scene than the film lets on up to that point. When their last remaining queen reaches out to Ender telepathically—revealing that they do communicate—he locates her, and she initially brings her pincer to his throat. But, upon discovering the remorse he feels, she wipes a tear from his face in a display of compassion. Ender then takes on the burden of finding a new home planet for her egg, establishing without a doubt that Formics are genuine people and that killing them was wrong, completely subverting the sci-fi genre.

Ender’s Game is inexorably linked to the Cold War, further driving its theme of nonviolent communication. The novel came out in 1985, when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high and fears of mass killing could not be understated. With the advent of the nuclear warhead, a single strike could mean the demolition of an entire city, and the only thing keeping the two nations from all-out war was mutually assured destruction. Featuring a weapon called the Molecular Detachment Device, which Ender uses to annihilate an entire planet in one blow, Ender’s Game directly confronts the fears and ethical conundrums that come with weapons of mass destruction. And it has never been more relevant or important than it is now, as Russia invades Ukraine without provocation in a fashion not unlike the Formics’ initial invasion of Earth. Nuclear warfare is once again becoming a very real possibility. The leaders of Earth’s nations could benefit from looking to Ender in this time of war. As he points out, those whose lives were sacrificed in his attack on the Formics “might not have died at all” if he could have simply observed the aliens and tried to understand them. When he opens his mind to the queen’s communications, much like Arrival’s Louise does, he finds compassion for the Formics and realizes that he no longer fears them or wants to fight them; in fact, he wants to help them. Let us not forget that the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War’s most climactic moment of imminent nuclear disaster, was resolved not by killing, but by diplomacy. Communication is the key to empathy, and empathy is the key to peace. Orson Scott Card reminded us of this in 1985, Gavin Hood reminded us in 2013, and it still rings true today.

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Connor Forhan

Passionate for film with a knack for audio and editing, I have earned an AFA in Music Creative Technologies and am currently majoring in Film Studies at WSU with a minor in Mass Communication: Creative Digital Media.