[All images via the official Ender’s Game Facebook page]
It’s the odd paradox of Ender’s Game that one of the most aggressively anti-war, liberal deconstructions of the space battle movie to hit screens in eons is potentially being derailed by the socially reactionary views of the man who originally came up with the story. (The folks who patronized Chick-fil-A as a political gesture may feel quite hoodwinked if they try to do likewise here.) What director and screenplay adapter Gavin Hood has done is somewhat comparable to Paul Verhoeven’s take on Starship Troopers, save that Verhoeven didn’t have to answer to a living Robert Heinlein, and was free to unsubtly mock his politics to the max. With author Orson Scott Card as producer, Hood was probably obliged to play things relatively straight – but still, he might well have made the second-best pacifist allegory about youngsters fighting space insects.
Make no mistake – Ender’s Game wants you to feel bad about liking scenes of full-on battles in space; had Hood directed the Star Wars trilogy, I’m thinking characters would have been reminding each other up until the very end of Jedi exactly how many lives were lost on Alderaan. Producer Bob Orci, who also cowrote Star Trek Into Darkness, continues to display his hard-on for 9-11 metaphors – images of alien destruction with the phrase “never forget” are prominently displayed in this future Earth. And they probably would be, if this were real, but the story worked fine as a book in the ’80s before all that, and I think it may be time to give it a rest. Regardless, if your big complaint about Man of Steel was its casual destruction and unmentioned innocent deaths – here is its antithesis. Enjoy…if you can.
A Harry Potter comparison is appropriate here for several reasons. There’s the similar plot, about children going to a fantastical school where they learn how to battle an old foe that may or may not be resurgent. And there’s the similar way a movie adaptation has to be, giving numerous characters who have full backstories in the book only a minute or so of screen time. Potter was a lengthy enough franchise that eventually characters like Neville got their day in the sun; Ender will likely not see any sequels unless it’s a massive surprise hit, and even then, some of the possibilities include leaping forward by decades and ditching the entire cast. By necessity, the movie will feel like Cliffs Notes for fans of the book; fortunately for all of us, that means ditching the Cold War elements and predictions of bloggers taking over the world that wouldn’t work as well today.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – non-fans probably want me to get on with the plot already. Ender (Asa Butterfield) is a rare third child in a future where special dispensation is needed for more than two, and children are being bred specifically in preparation for a second war with ant-like aliens called the Formics, who attacked Earth once and were seemingly defeated by the sheer luck of a well-placed kamikaze attack. Though it’s not clear that a second attack is definite, Earth’s military can take no chances, and want to deliver the equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and more in return for the metaphorical Pearl Harbor. Ender is selected by Col. Hyrum (Hire ’em!) Graff (Harrison Ford) after the boy kicks the shit out of a bully, not just in self-defense but also to make an example of him to make all others think twice.
So it’s off to space battle school, where most of the lessons involve floating around in zero-gravity with paralyzing ray guns and obstacle blocks, all of which is meant to teach the kids both how to maneuver starships and how to sacrifice their own men for use as human shields when needed. Again a Harry Potter comparison works, because like Quidditch matches, this stuff is far more fun to watch on a large screen than merely read descriptions of.
I’m afraid those looking for signs of author Card’s homosexuality obsession won’t find much, if anything – the boy-on-boy shower fight remains, but it’s short and they’re clothed. The platonic relationship between Ender and Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) remains so only barely: the two give off a chemistry that suggests they can’t wait for the take to end so they can run behind the bleachers and make out. And no, the aliens aren’t referred to as “Buggers” any more (Card claims he didn’t know what that meant when he wrote the first book, and retconned it for the sequels).
As I said in my interview with Gavin Hood, I am not a man with military experience. My father-in-law, however, is, and I brought him to the screening. Here are the key points he brought up:
-The placing of orders-questioning Ender and other misfits into their own unique unit where they can think outside the box is an accurate allegory for special forces training as he experienced it, save one detail – nobody on such a team would ever be promoted to commander.
-Said training would also take place over several years. The movie clearly protracts the timeline so as not to have to recast actors as they grow up, but perhaps they should have added some sort of technobabble explanation about how these kids learn three times as quickly or something.
He also found the plot and the movie’s message predictable, which I think is fair – director Hood’s opinion of what’s being shown is always made clear, via directorial emphasis and mood music, while Card’s prose let you be more of the judge (again, let us note how strangely selective he is with that philosophy). That it’s less didactic than Hood’s Tsotsi is a bit like saying it’s better than his Wolverine movie – both are faint praise, yet Ender’s Game is significantly better on both counts. While my father-in-law felt Ford’s Col. Graff was one-dimensional, I think it’s the best use of the actor in a long time – the inherent sympathy we bring to that familiar face is a nicely deliberate bit of misdirection.
As a fan of the book, I don’t think this is the perfect adaptation, nor could it have been. But it’s about as good as we could have expected – the final-final ending still packs an emotional punch – and that’s no small thing.