Expert Voices

Leroy Chiao: 'Ender's Game' Film Review

Ender's Game movie poster
"Ender's Game" movie starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, Asa Butterfield, and Abigail Breslin is due in theaters November 2013. (Image credit: Summit Entertainment.)

Leroy Chiao, AstroCritic, is a former NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station. During his 15-year flying career, he performed six spacewalks. Chiao is the special adviser for human spaceflight to the Space Foundation, and holds appointments at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University. Chiao contributed this Op-Ed to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed and Insights.

I read the Orson Scott Card novel "Ender's Game" some years ago, on the recommendation of a friend. I remember it as an unusual book, even for science fiction — and while I enjoyed the story, it left me somewhat disturbed; the use of children in warfare never leaves a warm fuzzy.

The film is, to a large degree, faithful to the novel. Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin is exactly as I imagined him in the book. So is Abigail Breslin as Valentine Wiggin. The special effects are spectacular, depicting events and battles very much as I imagined them while reading the story.

In the book, Card brings the concept of child soldiers to the future, but with a twist. Instead of AK-47-toting kids fighting for the survival and personal gain of a ruthless despot, the book's child soldiers are being trained to fight for the survival of the planet — trained not for their numbers, but for their intellect and abilities. This is a science-fiction story because it takes place in the future, and much of the depicted technology is close, but not quite yet invented. For these reasons, the story resonates. [Science Fiction in Space: 6 Movies to Watch in 2013]

Card's technical prognostications were prescient, and Gavin Hood, director of the film, brings them to life. Here are some of the highlights:

Tablet Computers: Look a lot like the ones today, but the future versions can interact with your thoughts.

Remote-Controlled UAVs: Also a reality today, but the advanced space versions can be controlled together in large numbers and maneuver quickly, with lots of direction changes. These would need a lot of fuel, or an advanced (not yet invented) propulsion system.

Robotic Surgery: Automated versions of what is in limited use today.

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Graphical Combat Operations Room: A very cool mission operations theater. Graphics wrap around, and the commander interacts with thought, as well as voice, to teammates working at advanced "Minority Report"-style glass workstations.

"Freeze" Pistols: These are used for training in battle games. They cause temporary local paralysis. Not sure how they would work, but they are pretty cool. Better than phasers set to stun!

Spacecraft-Battleships: Very large structures that are capable of deep-space travel with large crews. It would seem that past interplanetary war and the threat of future war cleared the way for space funding.

Directed-Energy Weapon: This is the farthest out there. Both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented with particle-beam weapons in the 1980s. The one in the movie goes a few steps further. Seems that in the future, according to the story, society gets these technologies pretty much perfected as a weapon of mass destruction.

While the technology and special effects are cool, the story will make you think. The moral and ethical dilemmas are timeless (although some might say stereotypical). Does the end justify the means? Is the sacrifice of the one for the greater good of the many ethically correct? Do good men need to do wicked things, in order to protect the collective from evil, or at least perceived evil? "Ender's Game" is thrilling and entertaining. It also causes reflection on values and morals. It calls into question who and what are we as humans.

The AstroCritic says: Check it out.

AC Rating: 3.5/5.0 Stars

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former commander