I was struggling a bit with my reactions to the new film adaptation of Ender’s Game. No, not because of the loud, kinda silly, kinda self-righteous, kinda deserved finger wagging and soap-boxing about novel author Orson Scott Card’s outspoken anti-gay brain vomitings. (To be clear, Card’s views on marriage equality deserve derision and mockery, but the “outrage” over them and calls for a boycott of the film feel a little too self-servingly easy and convenient, as do most “causes” centered on disposable pop culture.)
Instead, I was struggling with what I’m coming to see as the Gravity Effect. A few weeks ago, while still under the immediate spell of its stunning synthesis imagery and filmmaking dexterity ago, I declared Gravity a “near-masterpiece.” What I should have written was, “a near-masterpiece of visual and visceral thrills, not of ideas or themes.”
And that got me thinking about how easy it is, in these days of watching movies on our Dick Tracy wristwatches, to get overly seduced by simple big-screen awe. There’s certainly some of that at work in writer-director Gavin Hood’s very competent, watchable Ender’s Game.
The film, of course, adapts Card’s 1985 “shocking” and “disturbing” novel about pre-teen children in the future being recruited and trained to launch a preventive strike on the mysterious insectoid alien beings that unsuccessfully tried to invade Earth a few generations earlier. Young Andrew “Ender” Wiggins (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield) is singled out by head of the military program Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to spend years training with other children on a space station, learning and being sometimes brutally tested on battle tactics and strategy.
Along the way, Ender (who is equal parts sensitive, competitive, and ruthless) is manipulated, isolated, and tormented by both the program directors and his peers—all of it supposedly grooming the young, nimble, innovative boy into the ultimate war leader in the effort to defeat the aliens and save the human race.
But then a few days ago another film brought my Ender’s Game discontent into sharper focus. I re-watched Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that had me so chasing my own Trekkie tail last spring that I wrote not one, but two long-winded pieces about it and still wasn’t sure if I really “liked” it or not.
Watching it a second time was a surprisingly and sadly laborious endeavor. The new Trek is so hyper-packed with empty Cineplex dazzle-action, it led me to Tweet something to the effect that one-trick wunderkind J.J. Abrams, who now guides both the Star Trek and Star Wars cinematic franchises, know what makes for good science fiction: lots of running and jumping and chasing and punching and dangling and racing against the clock… in space!
It was, however, at the very end of my second Trek viewing (after all the running and jumping and chasing and punching and dangling and racing against the clock had finally subsided) that it struck me what was deeply troubling about both it and Enders’ Game. Star Trek spends several sexy hours juicing the audience with non-stop action thrills—everyone wants to kill everyone! And sometimes does!—and then in its coda, as theater patrons are slipping out early to beat the parking ramp rush, Kirk makes big statements about putting aside anger and conflict and war and seeking peace.
Ender’s Game, to its credit, is not nearly as wall-to-wall jacked up on adrenaline-fueled combat as Star Trek, but it tries to pull off a similar, even larger-scale philosophical swing in its falling action. After steadily rising, rising, rising to a “surprise” climax and full-blown wargasm of success and relief, Ender’s Game and Hood turn heels and try to guide the viewer on their way out with deep, mournful thoughts about the cost of war for both victims and victors.
In many ways this is not entirely the film’s fault. After all, Card’s novel wasn’t really intended to become the much-(over-)praised stand-alone modern Sci-Fi classic it’s considered today—though I’m sure Card and his accountant aren’t complaining.
Based on a 1977 short story, Card fleshed Ender’s Game out into a full-length novel merely to act as a de facto prequel to his more philosophical anti-war novel, Speaker for the Dead.
Ender’s Game is supposed to be the flashy, exciting battle that sets up Speaker for the Dead’s meditation on how we deal with war and genocide committed for a “just cause.” Writer-director Hood even gooses up the film’s anti-war message, slipping in even more overt mentions of knowing the “enemy” and using communication to attempt diplomatic solutions instead of Rumsfeld-like total annihilation.
But Ender’s Game the film is naturally packed with dazzling CGI vistas, exciting zero-gravity set pieces, and wham-bang giant starship battles, and all that space spectacle costs space bucks, and that means you need audiences. And audiences don’t want to sit for two hours and think about what war means, what it does to soldiers, what it takes to be a “good” (that is, ruthless, even reckless) wartime leader, and what it means to be a “war hero.” No, they want action and excitement. They want J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.
Hood, who, after his impressive 2005 South African film Tsotsi wobbled a bit in Hollywoodland with Rendition and the first Wolverine movie, feels on surer ground this time—he does a decent enough job taking time to explore some of these ideas, even if his characters are mostly painted in broad-strokes. The filmmaker is happy to embrace sadness, loneliness, isolation, and cruelty without the sort of candy-coating many mainstream films would insist on lathering over a story about pre-teens training for combat.
The result sometimes feels like Full Metal Jacket by way of Harry Potter, but that makes for an often interesting mix. Nor, in these days of Internet Guardians on constant patrol for Crimes Against the Book, does Hood slaughter the source material—aside from a few chronological and logistical tweaks and a couple major “What’s Happening on Earth in the Meantime?” omissions no doubt shelved for use in future sequels, the film hoves pretty close to Card’s novel. (We truly live in special film times, when “not as bad as you feared it might be” passes for genuine praise.)
Hood also gets a solid-enough hand up from his cast. Asa Butterfield’s too-clear, uncanny valley eyes sternly dart between tender hurt and scary determination, and Harrison Ford seems half-awake on screen for the first time in decades. The rest of the cast’s adults (Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley, the latter decked out in Maori face tattoos and a questionable accent) and kids (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, The Kings of Summer’s terrific Moises Arias, and Abigail Breslin) all do above-serviceable work.
The catch is that—brace yourself—novels and films are very different mediums, and what plays as layered and thoughtful on the page, is easily swept away by spectacle and excitement on the screen. When a film like Ender’s Game (or Abrams’ Star Trek) spends hours geeking the viewer with visual and martial thrills, it doesn’t matter how many times or how emphatically characters decry violence and warfare in the closing minutes—all the viewer’s lizard-brain cerebral cortex remembers is the high it got off all that “heroic” action and victory.
It’s like pushing a diner through an all-you-can-eat buffet and then, after they’ve cleaned their fourth plate, setting up a slideshow presentation about the dangers of over-eating. (Or, if your prefer, setting up an STD awareness booth with pamphlets about female objectification by the exit of a whore house.)
Throughout Ender’s Game, we’re continually told about the psychological struggles the young boy faces and the dangerous push and pull between training and toughening up his killer instinct to make him a great and ruthless war leader (as championed by Ford’s Graff) and maintaining some sort of baseline humanity within the lonely, isolated boy (as hand-wrung about by Davis’ Major Anderson, the program’s psychiatrist and maternal stand-in).
But while we’re told about these dichotomies, what we’re shown—what our lizard brains remember—are Ender’s fights and victories, big and small, both sanctioned and secret. What sticks with us as we leave the theater is not so much Ender’s later search for pacifistic redemption, but rather the dark lesson—already learned at Fredericksburg and Normandy—that the only way to truly win a war is to disregard the cost in lives on both sides.
“When this war is over we can have the luxury of debating the morality of what we do. But not if there’s nothing left of us,” says Graff in the film, but you’d be forgiven if you mistook the line for the Congressional Record or a presidential speech. While Card’s novel was published in the waning days of the Cold War, the new film’s post-9-11 War on Terror parallels are obvious: Do we seek to empathize and communicate with mysterious, scary forces who once bloodied our nose; or do we simply set out to wipe them out of existence? Watching fresh-faced youngsters remotely control the massive firepower of space fleets, how can today’s audiences not think of Predator Drones and Navy SEAL teams?
Like Captain Phillips, Ender’s Game ends up as a mostly well-made film with the nice glow of being “about” something without actually saying much. I believe Hood genuinely wanted to make a film that pondered these complicated issues more deeply, but in the midst of making a big budget space movie in the age of Hunger Games franchises, he simply lost control not of his message but its delivery. (On the other hand, I suspect the only thing J.J. Abrams wants to convey is his love of shiny lens flares.)
Despite its best altruistic intentions, the overall spectacle thrust of Ender’s Game leaves us seeing Ender’s useful empathy for the enemy (knowing your enemy means loving your enemy, which means killing them more effectively) more as a freak mutation than an admirable trait. While the boy wonders in the film if he can be as gifted at peace as he is at war, the film doesn’t get to the part in the later novels where the character is eventually (by his own hand) seen as a genocidal murderer not a hero.
After all, we Americans find a babysitter, pay for dinner and parking and tickets and popcorn to see big-screen tales of heroes, not genocidal sociopaths. And certainly not of hippy peaceniks wanting to “understand, know, and talk to” the enemy.