Movies Without Pity

Ender’s Game: These Kids Today

by Ethan Alter November 1, 2013 6:01 am
<i>Ender’s Game</i>: These Kids Today

I normally don't feel the need to be so explicate about separating the art from the artist, but in the case of Ender's Game -- both the terrific book it is and the pretty good movie version it's become -- it seems necessary to mark a clear dividing line between my appreciation for the work itself and my distaste for the author who created it, Orson Scott Card. I first encountered the book in the late '90s, roughly a decade after its 1985 release date, and had one of those intense, immersive reading experiences where you become so absorbed in the world on the page, you can't easily snap back to reality. It remains a novel I revisit every few years (along with one or two other of Card's other early works, particularly The Worthing Chronicle and the short story collection Maps in a Mirror) and still appreciate for its masterful plotting and vivid descriptions of a militaristic future where warfare is waged by child soldiers bred on video game simulations and zero-gravity school skirmishes. (Less so its questionable gender and racial politics, which, admittedly, are problematic and become more so with each re-read.)

So while I have a great deal for affection for Ender's Game (which has since spawned multiple sequels, spin-offs and short stories, only a handful of which are any good), I have very little affection for Card, who has become an increasingly outspoken champion of bigoted causes. It's not just his strident opposition to gay marriage that offends; it's his hate-filled ramblings about how such unions will bring about the end of democracy or shrill descriptions of President Obama's transformation into a Hitler-like dictator, both of which reveal the depths of his ignorance-fueled paranoia. Both the studio and the filmmakers involved in making Ender's Game have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from Card -- he's been noticeably absent from the film's publicity tour -- but that hasn't stopped boycott movements from springing up anyway. And if you feel that strongly about not wanting to see Card profit in whatever small way from the price of your movie ticket (although he may not see any profit at all), I can't in good conscience insist that you do otherwise. But if you, like me, hold the book in high regard or are just in the mood for well-executed sci-fi spectacle (and have already seen Gravity two or three times), the film version is worthy of your attention.

Enough with the preamble; for those of you not already familiar with the novel, Ender's Game is the story of young Ender Wiggin (played onscreen by Asa Butterfield), a superb tactician and brutal fighter living on a future Earth where such skills bring you to the immediate attention of the interplanetary military that has dictated off-world policy ever since human forces repelled an apparent alien invasion decades ago. At the tender age of six -- though he's closer to ten or 11 in the movie -- Ender is recruited by a Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to study at the space-bound Battle School, which specializes in whipping young boys and girls into fighting shape, as the powers that be have determined that children's minds are the most adept at devising the tactics necessary to defeat mankind's insect-like alien enemies, the Formics. Much of Ender's training revolves around the Battle Room, a Zero-G environment where teams of trainees face off against each other with stun guns in what's essentially an elaborate game of capture the flag. But he's also schooled in the hard knocks of military life away from the (fake) battlefield, confronting jealous classmates and manipulative commanders. All of that's just a warm-up for his biggest challenge: graduating to Command School, where the war games start feeling disturbingly real.

In its pacing and primary narrative interests, Ender's Game is more indebted to the short story that preceded the novel by some eight years. That early version focused primarily on the hero's experiences at both the Battle and Command schools as he prepared to join the human forces fighting the alien army. For the book, Card embellished both Ender's backstory and the larger geopolitical concerns at play on post-invasion Earth, as well as fleshing out the hero's relationship to the Formics, which came to play an important role in the sequels Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide. Much of that material has been eliminated or pushed to the margins for the film, which is understandable, but unfortunate as some crucial details have been lost in the process. I was particularly saddened to see Ender's older brother and sister, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), reduced to mere walk-on roles when they have such meaty parts to play on the page. (Peter in particular is little more than a garden-variety bully in the film, which will disappoint anyone familiar with the complex person he becomes in Card's fuller narrative.)

The accelerated pace of the film also means that Ender's rise through the Battle School ranks has been sped up, which leaves less time for getting to know the various allies, including Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and Bean (Aramis Knight), that he makes along the way. His relationship with Graff has also been streamlined, with the older man acting as more of a gruff authority figure than the manipulative pragmatist he is in the book. (Though much of that also has to do with the casting of Ford in the role, who -- What Lies Beneath aside -- doesn't generally enjoy playing the bad guy. He's aged into the grumpy paternal type and approaches his relationship with Butterfield accordingly.) Next to the Peter/Valentine material, the aspect of the novel I personally missed the most was a running storyline involving a fantastical (and increasingly horrific) video game that Ender repeatedly immerses himself in, one that ultimately plumbs the depths of his own psychology as well as the psychology of his supposed enemy. To be fair, that game is represented in the movie, but in a severely truncated form that's more cartoonish than creepy.

For all that didn't make it onto the screen, Ender's Game realizes other parts of the book more successfully than I would have ever expected, starting with the superb Battle Room sequences. Although director Gavin Hood's previous foray into studio filmmaking, the execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, suggested that he had no idea where to put the camera during an action set-piece, this film clearly indicates otherwise. Hood cleverly toys with the perspective and point-of-view in these scenes in the same way that Card does on the page, clearly depicting how the orientation of the fighters is constantly shifting in a zero-g environment. There's a grace and elegance to the battle choreography that's genuinely thrilling to observe, and Hood successfully carries that sense of excitement -- not to mention spatial clarity -- into the second half of the picture, where Ender wages his battles on video monitors rather than a well-equipped training room.

And perhaps because his breakout film, 2005's Tsotsi (which won that year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), also dealt with a young man forced into the position of being a warrior (albeit a terrestrial one), Hood -- in concert with a poised and intensely focused Butterfield -- successfully dramatizes the toll this experience exacts on Ender's childhood, not to mention his very humanity. In fact, the movie goes even further than the book in questioning the morality of any army that would conscript children into the war machine. Hood, who is the sole credited screenwriter, uses the tenor of the times to make a necessary (if resoundingly unsubtle) connection to the War on Terror as it was waged during the Bush presidency, with Graff more or less becoming a version of Donald Rumsfeld.

Leaving aside the specific pros and cons of the page-to-screen adaptation for a moment, Ender's Game mostly succeeds as its own entity because it has a tonal consistency, strong narrative drive and clarity of creative vision that can all too often get obscured as an expensive film winds its way through the Hollywood development machine. There are plenty of mistakes and missteps that viewers who aren't versed in the book can point to, ranging from miscasting (some of the young actors are, frankly, terrible) to iffy special effects to obvious storytelling gaps where scenes have been cut out or heavily revised in post. But in its best moments, the film offers the mix of impressive spectacle and resonant substance that you always hope for when headed into the latest sci-fi blockbuster.

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