Ender’s Game has always been about generational conflict: An international military organization takes gifted young children and trains them in a totalitarian environment in order to prepare them for the invasion of an alien species. Strip away its visions of a gamified zero-gravity future and sci-fi invasions, and Orson Scott Card’s 1985 book tells a quintessential children vs. adults-who-are-jerks-and-just-don’t-get-us narrative. Or, as Ender puts it in the film: “Why should I respect someone just because they outrank me?”
The book has reached canonical status in part because that theme becomes newly relevant for each wave of children who come across it. That same cyclical renewal applies to generational discord in our non-fictional world. Older generations trying to control a younger one that wants to reject the status quo is nothing particularly new.
But when viewed through the prism of the contemporary, general themes can become specific and topical ones. That’s why writer-director Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game adaptation feels like it’s not just children vs. adults—it’s Millennial vs. Baby Boomers.
A stigma, most recently exemplified by Joel Stein’s controversial Time magazine cover story “The Me Me Me Generation,” has developed around the group of people born approximately between 1980 and 2000. They’re hounded by the perception that they are “lazy, entitled narcissists,” financial drains on their parents, and exhibitive of unjustified confidence and unorthodox thinking that makes them affronts to Boomer models of career paths and workplaces. Even Millennials virtues that have the potential to “save us all” (as Stein put it)—like their tech prowess—are frequently treated as problems that need solving.
You can see a similar attitude in the adult characters in the Ender’s Game film, most notably Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Graff speaks of Ender (Asa Butterfield) and his peers as “the world’s smartest children [who] are our best hope,” conceding his generation needs “young men like [Ender], people who handle complexity better than adults.” Nonetheless, he still views the children as incapable of realizing their own potential without his assistance. Every step of the way Ender is managed and supervised, his gifts steered and conformed solely in a direction that benefits Gaff’s purposes.
It is, in a sense, a Boomer fantasy: The youth succeed directly because their elders facilitate it. Or, to put it in more direct terms: Millennials can only save us all if their elders save Millennials from themselves first. Google the generation and you’ll see that fantasy spread out over pages of articles (with titles like “Here’s How to Deal with Millennials Who Aren’t Ready to Face Real Challenges”) advising Boomers what Generation Y is doing wrong, and how they can be fixed, helped, or controlled—as workers, consumers and people. These authors—like Graff in Ender’s Game—believe the world’s potential saviors can only excel under tight Boomer control.
That’s a scenario Millennials understandably bristle against. So the conflict between Ender and the adults who manipulate and betray him in Ender’s Game should resonate easily for them. Members of “The Screwed Generation” (as Newsweek named them) frequently feel as The New Republic put it: Boomers betrayed Millennials’ futures by “bequeathing [them] a society more ‘in debt’ than ever before … ecologically, financially, politically, culturally.” There’s certainly that sense in the film’s narrative: Ender faces a hopeless world on the brink as a result of the actions of his elders. Graff may talk casually about wanting to provoke “frustration” and “rejection” in Ender, but the child doesn’t need to be made to feel that way. He already does. As do Millennials who are facing bleak job prospects, financial uncertainty, and the negative stereotypes they are contending with.