If there is one thing to get a passionate response from yours truly regarding Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Ender’s Game, it is not the social viewpoints and activism of the original novel’s author, Orson Scott Card. Yes, the man’s personal politics are vulgar and disturbing to say the least, but we’re nearly 30 years out from the original penning of the novel, so I am inclined to take the book on its own merits, namely the printed page, as with the film, for what is up on screen. No, if I am to get passionate, it is the litany of missed opportunities that pile every upwards as the film progresses: Rushed plotting; Bad dialogue and shoddy characterization which likely resulted in the poor performances from actors who are normally better (particularly the ladies Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld); Failure to commit fully to its themes; Alluding to both Full Metal Jacket and Starship Troopers, yet having not an ounce of self-awareness or wit to warrant such allusions. I supposed like similarly handsome yet toothless 2013 science fiction with an about face, Oblivion, we should just forget about it and move on, but I find missed opportunities more risible than simply commercially crass filmmaking, and thus my dander is a bit up.
So, let us go through things. But first a few words on the source material.
When I read the book in 1985, the final twist was so astonishing that the any denouement failed to convince younger me of the moral ugliness of divorcing command decisions from the folks in the field. Or for that matter the atrocity in equal measure of taking children so young and sacrificing their psyche and childhood on the alter of ‘pre-emptive strike’ military tactics. It was just a cool story of a bullied by smart kid who comes into his own self confidence via his applied intelligence in zero-G war games and the resulting trials of leadership and friendship only to be used ‘a little early’ by a disingenuous senior command. It was a neat story, compelling characters and maybe a bit of wish fulfilment to a budding science fiction nerd. When reading things as a parent in 2013, post American Pre-Emptive Strike (aka Gulf War II) geopolitical landscape, coupled with ubiquitous and complex video games accessible to increasingly younger kids and a particular enhanced sensitivity to bullying, the story struck me as something vastly darker, more sinister and flat out disturbing. It was more along the lines of Paul Verhoeven’s slyly satirical take on Starship Troopers than Robert Heinlein’s more earnest read on military service and moral obligation. Years ago, I felt that 1999 was the right year for an adaptation of the book, perhaps with The Sixth Sense‘s emotive Haley Joel Osment in the lead, after all, that was the year peak of ‘reality vs. fantasy’ and ‘big twist’ movie making. But clearly the ground is more fertile after 9/11 and Microsoft’s Halo and the “It Gets Better Project” in 2013 which makes Gavin Hood’s adaptation, as humourless as it is, flirts with all the opportunities to actually say something with the material, but fails to be anything but a lumpy mass of mushy confusion about anything. It is a frustrating experience.
Why aim to shoehorn this story into under 2 hours? Ender Wiggin has to go from anomalous and confused third child (in a society that does not allow for three children, thus making him both unwanted and ‘special’ in a negative fashion) to being put on a pedestal when military recruiter Colonel Hyrum Graff singles him out as a prime military school candidate and potential future leader and then goes on to isolate him psychologically from his peers. Putting him through a couple years of training on an orbiting military base where various teams have tactical combat in a battle room with no simulated gravity, only then to graduate Ender to a more simulated realtime video game of command and conquer with light-weight drones, gunships and air-craft carriers. All the while Ender is grinding against the military rules and convention in the school and dealing with making friends and enemies of his colleagues due to his meteoric rise through the ranks; partly on merit, partly via undisguised favouritism from Graff. If one wants to do this convincingly, it has to develop organically through character building and measured pacing to let the significance of Ender reaching every new and difficult ‘level’ of his coming of age. Little of which is on display here, as things move forward in a breathless fashion of ‘check points.’ Ender being kicked out of pre-military school and bullied by classmates, only to come home and be bullied by his brother, before whisked away to space. It’s a jumble that allows no scene to ever breathe or reflect, only push inevitably forward.
The battle school should be our introduction to Ender’s budding tactical genius, and much of it is told, or at the very least shown poorly. Why introduce the Zero Gravity battle room and then stage only a couple wrote and incomprehensible battles therein before moving on? Ender meets Petra, the only girl apparently in the entire school, which is painfully and patently false in todays world where girls routinely outdo their male counterparts on test scores and ambition – but I digress. Petra shows him the ropes, not unlike Trinity to Neo in the Matrix, only to take a agency-free back seat, at best offering a joyless emotional cushion on the space station, even as his barely introduced earthbound sister Valentine serves the same function back on the home front. More bullying in the form of planet Earth’s worst potential leader ever, Bonzo, who repeats the familiar cycle and wastes a lot of screen time which might have been better served giving us some meat in Ender’s progress; an alternative to the visual chop-salad presented in its stead. A key observation by Ender, that in space there is no up or down, and things are defined only by the orientation you arbitrarily choose, is bluntly stated on that first flight up, in full hearing of the rest of the ‘launchies’ in Ender’s class, but somehow more for the benefit of the audience rather than narrative. Why none of these kids who have spent all their time on earth in pre-battle school and graduating, probably playing nothing but 3D spacial video games, as the best of breed wouldn’t know this questions credulity and is ludicrously bad screenwriting. Perhaps in 1985, in the absence of first person video games and quality flight simulators available to anyone with a rudimentary personal computer or video game console, this might be acceptable, but loyal (or lazy) fidelity to the source novel in light of how much the world has changed in the ensuing 3 decades is just silly.
No, the battle room is just a series of rankings on the board, with not even a sports montage to guide us. Gone is the triumph of seeing Ender re-write years of Quiddich at Hogwarts with a radical new strategy, gone is the team building by talent used well and victory earned. Instead we get the tug-of-war between Graff’s all-military-all-the-time and station head-shrinker Gwen Anderson (a competent, but wasted Viola Davis who disappears as quick as she arrives) in terms of Ender’s empathy and humanity. Another video game, this one more a free-form Kobayashi Maru, but utterly simplified by even todays standards, aims to suss out Ender’s reaction to frustration, but since nothing in this movie ever convincingly frustrates Ender – even as lip service is payed to his lack of communication with his family – the story tells us but verisimilitude is an illusion hampered by the lack of any breathing scenes, or the ability of Asa Butterfield as an actor. Like a good Captain Kirk, Ender finds a way to ‘beat the game’ even if, (unlike Kirk) he manages to somehow do this within the framework of the game. This is another rushed ‘reveal’ later on, but suffice it to say, the game within a game is as rushed as Anderson’s exit from the film. Instead the film favours half-baked testosterone cliche’s cribbed from Stanley Kubrick and R. Lee Ermey. Even as you never actually see any cadets ‘wash the fuck out’ or we ever get to the point where the unit all puts their soap into towels and beats the holy hell out of Ender (or maybe Bonzo for being such an clueless ass.) Curiously however, Harrison Ford is solidly committed to the role, which is developed just enough to make Graff a convincing villain of the best kind, the one with good intentions and conviction of belief. Even if the film never provides a positive or negative resolution to his villainy, Ford is the only actor here who walks away with any impression (albeit I kind of dug Ben Kingsley’s Maori facial tats and his pretty convincing Kiwi accent). This late in Ford’s sagging career, this is good for him, even if the film pans out to be a failure.
The lack of any significant screen time to Ender’s future sub-commanders Bean, Alia and Dink is another aspect if the films rush an unsatisfactory ending. Neither in person conversation with Ender nor a demonstrated learning in the battle room to reveal the developing bond or loyalty is ever really shown. Only a quickie overhead shot where the launchies abandon a less superior team-mate at the cafeteria table. I am not against short-hand in cinema, but there are limits to how much your can render in précis if you want to make the emotional journey of the hero realized with an audience. Ender’s fear of his brother, or the love and respect for his sister (even as she is co-opted by the state as an emotional lever to have Ender continue his ‘gaming.’) is handled with such plot-point checking that it undermines any shot at the film ever developing a soul.
Then there is the ‘enemy,’ an insectile race who battered the holy hell out of the human race in a various wars decades earlier and humanities psychological scars for its past failures, or the modest success of merely surviving against a hostile enemy. Hood (who I should have mentioned earlier is the screenwriter as well as the director) casually brushes with propaganda and jingo-ism by way of a media clip shown several times in the film that features heroic Mazer Rackham martyring himself for the survival of mankind and the justification of the IF youth recruiting format in the effort to find the next military martyr. Furthermore, the ugly propaganda and language wherein everyone refers enemy using the derogatory, “Bugger” moniker is omitted from this adaptation, maybe because it sounds ugly, or implies paedophilia, along with all of Peter and Valentine’s ‘internet forum chatter’ on the political networks in terms of the winning of hearts and minds for the ‘inevitable’ war by choice. I don’t necessarily retreat all the book’s ‘nuance,’ being excised for the sake of the limited runtime of a film, which requires more show-don’t-tell rather than a philological treatise. And what remains is still worthy of sinking ones teeth into. The juicy notion of Graff’s (and that of the briefly shown Stratagos and by extension the entire military arm of humanity) hubris, and his willingness to destroy the innocence of children (a psychological paedophilia?) for humanities own collective paranoid fears, for an offence, ‘a message’ to the perceived bullies/buggers that they should never come back. That standing up to ones bullies should not be simply fighting back, but rather full on over-kill – meaning they won’t come back if they don’t exist. Again ripe for some Strangelove-ian satire (with a ‘secret doomsday machine, no less) that seems to be lost on the filmmakers here in favour of baby Ooh-Rahs.
I will give you another one. Since Alai is likely Arabic Muslim (given his use “Salaam Alaikum”) and is in good standing in the military school, and shown to be one of the rare sympathetic folks towards Ender’s ever increasing responsibilities, it implies (perhaps) that humanity has gotten over its own geopolitics in light of a larger enemy (shades of Watchmen’s ephemeral way of ending the alternate 1980s cold war.) That the response towards the new ‘other’ is orders of magnitude more hostile (meaning full on genocide) is a ironically bleak look at humanity getting over its differences in order to be more vitriolic to someone else. Maybe this type of satire is not going to endear you to a mass audience, but it would likely make your film last a little longer. Of course Hood and company do nothing with the notion, and then go so far as to backpedal with Ender’s discovery at the end of the film.
But let us focus on the ending of the film. *SPOILER* When Ender and his band of brothers ‘graduate’ from the program and are let in on the dirty little secret that the ‘game’ was in fact far from it, there comes the immediate realization that casual sacrifices made ‘in the game’ with a win at all costs made in the face of perceived lower stakes with empathy removed from the equation. In the hermetically sealed simulation chamber there is just the game, and the goal of graduation, not the consequences of war…until there is, immediately. Ender is crushed by his being used by the powers that be, none of his subcommanders, also sorely used, seem all that affected and rally around Ender only to lend a sympathetic hand, which is just shitty storytelling. If children were going to be used and abused in such a wanton, the ends justify the means fashion, why not show the effects. Why not get edgy and confrontational, and have the young heroes clapped in chains and removed from the narrative or even co-opted by the system, such was Maori Mazer Rackham? Let the film be an allegory, a warning, a futuristic Grimm fable.
I know the ending of the film follows along with the books denouement, but why not make the film be of a purpose unto itself, and show the evils to which a collectively united humanity is capable of stooping in its entirety. Instead of the deus ex machina, Lorax-ending that is tacked on so superficially and artlessly to end on a ‘happy note’ (as if as damn near genocide based on utter lack of understanding of your enemy can get to a happy place in mere moments) to allow the punters to completely forget the point of the film, why not save the Queen and her deathbed request to the human-vessel of her destruction for a sequel or eventual franchise? I know, who would go to see the sequel of a downer first part? Nevertheless, many of the classics science fiction filmmaking, nearly of them misunderstood at the time of their release, feature bleak endings. Better to have a lasting classic than an inconsequential wet blanket that merely breaks even on its budget.
The string of failures to capitalize on fertile material filters down to actors struggling with banal dialogue, perfunctory scenes, and plot-first-everything-else-second mentality of Ender’s Game. That is a damn shame, perhaps the terrorists…er…studio hacks have already won. When I saw Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman on as producers in the closing credits of this rushed piece of flim flam, that was my first thought.