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.