By the time I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, I had already read a few Harry Potter books and I couldn’t help but think of the earlier sci-fi work initially as “Harry Potter in space.” It’s a comparison that continues for many now that the movie is out. “Harry Potter meets Star Wars,” claims a blurb used in UK ads credited to Sky Movies host Craig Stevens. And if you search Twitter for “Ender’s Game and Harry Potter” the results of both titles mentioned together is aplenty. All this is natural for the lazy way we relate movies to each other. The sad thing is some kids might think of the new movie as a derivative piece of YA fiction modeled after J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard.
I don’t know if Potter was at all influenced by Ender’s Game. It’s not like Card’s book was the first messianic tale. The website TV Tropes even labels the relevant trope as “A Child Shall Lead Them,” a Biblical quote that also appears at the top of the New York Times review of the movie, in which critic Manohla Dargis breaks out the ol’ “Christ figure” descriptor for the main character. Still, I wish that I’d both read and seen the Harry Potters after reading/seeing Ender’s Game. If you’ve somehow avoided all the Hogwarts adventures before going to Battle School with the new Ender’s adaptation, consider yourself lucky. Watch the entire series now to see what I’m talking about. And right there I’ve got the first eight titles for this list out of the way…
Just kidding, consider Potter a gimme. Below are ten more movies to watch after you get back from Ender’s Game (and there might be some spoilers, so do see Ender’s before going ahead – it’s pretty good). And if you wind up uncontrollably labeling them “Ender’s Game in…,” well, that’s just part of the game with using new films as gateways for old.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Speaking of Harry Potter meets Star Wars and the concept of the messianic young hero, that’s actually just the Star Wars franchise already. Even A New Hope’s Luke Skywalker fits the model. In The Phantom Menace, it’s even more a lock since Anakin is so young. But that’s not why we’re starting with this movie, which many of you would probably rather not re-watch. I’ve included it because at one time Card wanted Jake Lloyd to play Ender. Think of how the age of the hero would have been more faithful, but also imagine how terrible he would have been. Asa Butterfield is nearly perfect in the role and gives a tremendous performance. So this is mostly a reminder that we dodged a bullet.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Son of Rambow (2007)
You better already be familiar with Butterfield through at least Hugo. I shouldn’t have to include that. He’s been pretty consistently good through his childhood, and I’ll always recommend the delightful, underrated Nanny McPhee movies (he’s in the second one). A pretty suitable recommendation for him right now would be The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, as he plays a Nazi’s son who secretly befriends a young concentration camp prisoner through a fence. There are parallels that can be drawn to Ender’s feelings at the end of the movie towards the Formics. But I’d rather go back further to his feature theatrical debut, Hammer & Tongs’ Son of Rambow. He’s only in it for a minute (as a Church kid, see below) and barely gets to show promise of his talent, but let him just be a reason to watch this under-seen movie (in America anyway) that is also mostly populated with bright and clever kids.
Available on Amazon Streaming
The Kings of Summer (2013)
At the screening I attended, a lot of people kept laughing whenever Moises Arias was on screen. I don’t know if it’s because they were thinking of his character in The Kings of Summer or if they just thought he looked funny (“he’s so short,” I heard one audience member say too loudly), but if you did go into Ender’s Game knowing him from this earlier 2013 release, you might have agreed he was kind of ill-fitting in the role of Bonzo. If you’d never seen him before (because you weren’t a Hanna Montana fan and like me you avoided Nacho Libre), then make your next step into his career with Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Sundance favorite. He occasionally feels out of place here, too, as in it’s like he’s in another movie altogether with his scene-stealing weirdness, but he’s still undeniably hilarious.
Available on Amazon Streaming
Independence Day (1996)
I guess it’s kind of weird to go back and watch the movie that comes chronologically before the events in Ender’s Game, but sometimes you don’t realize a movie is a sequel when you go into it. Wait, it’s not an ID4 sequel? But it starts out recapping the end of ID4’s world-saving battle in which a hero defeats the alien invaders by destroying the mainframe of the hive mind. Well, official or not, I think 20th Century Fox might want to just cancel those actual planned ID4 sequels now. There’s not a much more logical place to go narratively than what we see in Ender’s Game.
Available on Amazon Streaming
War Witch (2012)
The kids in Ender’s Game are basically a future form of child soldier. They may get to use computers and drones and human pawns they never see much less meet, but they’re easily comparable to the children in rebel armies and violent gangs around the world. There are plenty of documentaries about this subject, perhaps most notably 1998’s Soldier Child (watch it free on YouTube care of Cinedigm) and of course Kony 2012 (watch), about Joseph Kony and his LRA child army. But this recent Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is a great dramatic introduction to the devastating life of young military recruits. It even deals with a special individual among the soldiers, a young girl who seems to have supernatural abilities that makes her a favorite of the army’s leader.
Hornet’s Nest (1970)
For a less serious movie about a child army, seek out this unloved yet fascinating WWII movie starring Rock Hudson as an American paratrooper who joins up with a bunch of Italian kids seeking revenge on the Nazis (at least some of it is apparently based on a true story). It’s interesting to look at this while considering how much it was criticized for depicting children in violent combat and how it contrasts visually with what the kids are doing in Ender’s Game – yet is still aligned morally. Also, the response to this movie makes me think The Hunger Games could never have been successful 40 years ago, especially not as family entertainment.
Available in a limited edition DVD from MGM
Do we still all hate this movie after 21 years? Regardless, this isn’t a list of movies I think are great, just movies that are worth looking at. And the connection here is the scene in which children are playing military video games as a form of training before they’ll man actual war “toys.” The statement being made is the same for both this and Ender’s Game regarding the link between violent gaming and the real deal – though the disconnect is more a focus in the new movie. You could also watch the decade-earlier WarGames, too.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
A year before Card’s book was published, this comparable story hit the big screen in a double bill with Cloak & Dagger. It too deals with how video games are preparing kids for real situations by having a hero who plays an arcade game that’s been a test for potential new recruits for a military outfit in outer space all along. He’s not fighting for the human race and the battle isn’t a mission of genocidal proportions, and there’s more direct fighting, resembling Star Wars combat over Ender’s Game’s. But the video game as simulation for space war is perfectly in tune.
Available on Amazon Streaming
The Running Man (1987)
Ender’s Game involves a few instances concerning how things aren’t what they seem in war or in the mediation of war. At one point Ender and the audience learn that a well-known propaganda film has been missing some bits revealing what really went down when Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) heroically took out the Formics’ mothership. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene near the end of this Arnold Schwarzenegger classic where we’re re-shown a propaganda video now with the whole picture of what really occurred. I won’t go into details about the content in case you haven’t seen it before.
Available on Amazon Streaming (to buy only)
Another instance of visual deception is at the end of Ender’s Game when Ender learns that what he’s just led and been watching was the actual slaughter of an entire planet and race of aliens, not another simulation. Understandably, he reacts quite angrily. So does Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) in this dark teen movie when she realizes that she and her boyfriend (Christian Slater) are using real bullets and murdering – not just pranking, as she’s told – a couple of high school football hotshots.
The Act of Killing (2012)
Released this year in the U.S. with endorsement from Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary on Indonesian death squad leaders who helped the national slaughter of communists in the 1960s is the most complicated tie-in with Ender’s Game. The main subjects in the doc are mass murderers who are heroes in their country because they’re still on the side of those who won the “war,” and remain in power. In the sci-fi movie, the humans overall but in particular Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) and the other adults celebrating the genocide they’ve just committed are no different than The Act of Killing’s Anwar Congo and the other unapologetic gangsters, except the characters in Ender’s Game didn’t directly, physically do the killing themselves. Through the documentary, we’re given reason to think that Americans haven’t been much better in the past, creating an entire entertainment genre centered around cowboys ridding the country of Indians. For that parallel, Ender would represent the very late conscience of the U.S. in only the past few decades as we realized and apologized for what we’d done.
Out on DVD and Blu-ray on November 19.
Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945 (1970)
It’s surprising to me that Ender and the other kids are shown the devastation of the Formics’ planet in such detail, but it does make sense for the story to get his response. I forget what happens in the book and haven’t read the sequels, but I bet that footage isn’t shown to the public. That would make it similar to the newsreel footage of the immediate aftermath of our bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. military made this footage top secret for many years, probably because the nation would have had a similar reaction to Ender’s. When it was declassified, there was no announcement and it wasn’t until years later that students at Columbia University (including documentary film historian Eric Barnouw, who is credited as director) came across the material and turned it into this college film library staple. Yes, it’s hard to watch, and that’s the point. See what kind of destruction we’re capable of and multiply it some to imagine how the humans of Ender’s time could destroy a whole race. And keep in mind that to many Americans, the Japanese weren’t any more “human” than the Formics.
Watch most of the film below.