Saturday, December 27, 2014

Ender’s Game (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate, OddLot Entertainment, Chartoff Productions, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles wanted us to watch a movie together last night — something we hadn’t done in a week! — and I picked out Ender’s Game, a 2013 film of Orson Scott Card’s militaristic sci-fi novel from 1985. The novel had been kicked around various studios with several more or less serious attempts to pull it together as a project, including one Card himself tried to produce in 1996, but it ended up at Summit Entertainment around the time Summit was absorbed by Lionsgate. (Originally they called the company “Lions Gate” — two words but with no apostrophe either before or after the “s” in “Lions,” which irritated me — but now they’re pretty much just using the one-word spelling and seem to have abandoned their once-cool logo showing a gate with lions on both doors being pulled into place with Metropolis-esque machinery.) One could see why that company would be attracted to this material — they’re already knocking on the door of major studio status with the immense profits from the Twilight and Hunger Games cycles, and the Ender sequence (Card has written five novels in this universe, including one called Ender’s Shadow that covers the same events as Ender’s Game from different points of view and was supposedly tapped for the screenplay of this film since Card felt Ender’s Game was unfilmable come scritto since it all took place in Ender’s head) offers some of the same elements: a science-fiction or fantasy setting, a young-adult protagonist (the actor playing him, Asa Butterfield, was 15 when the film was shot) and enough material from the original author that they would be able to make sequelae if the first film was a hit. It wasn’t, however — according to the estimated budget was $110 million and the total gross was $61,656,849 as of January 3, 2014 — and it’s easy enough to understand why: the protagonist is a young man instead of a young woman, there are no sexual or romantic relationships in the story at all (lead character Ender Wiggins’ best friend and closest ally during the training is a woman, Petra Arkanian, played by Hailee Steinfeld, but there’s no hint of either an actual or potential romantic or sexual interest between them the way there is between Tris and her commander, Four, in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a story whose author has acknowledged her debt to Ender’s Game), and the whole mind-set is very male-oriented even though Card, to his credit, posits a future in which men and women serve in the armed forces on an equal basis (though, curiously, of the cadets the young Ender trains with only a few are female, and all but one of the women wash out early on and are never seen nor heard from again).

The film drew opposition and the threat of a boycott from Queer community activists because of Card’s writings against homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular (he’s a lifelong Mormon and a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, though given how many wives Brigham Young had there are probably a lot of his great-great-grandchildren running around!), and when the Los Angeles Times ran a commentary denouncing the boycott threats I wrote a letter (unpublished) in response which said, “I won’t be joining a call to boycott Ender’s Game, but I won’t be paying money to see it either. Orson Scott Card’s anti-Gay prejudices don’t bother me as much as the Right-wing elements of his politics that are part of his story (I’ve read the book): the virtual worship of the military and the quasi-fascistic glorification of toughness and mercilessness as not only necessities but virtues. Card’s power as a writer in expressing his brutal world-view only makes Ender’s Game more obnoxious that it would be if a less talented storyteller had published it.” I also suspect Ender’s Game was a box-office flop because it was made about a decade too late for the Zeitgeist: the book’s central premise — that 50 years before it takes place the Earth was attacked and humanity nearly annihilated in a surprise attack by a species from another planet called the Formics, so called because they were basically giant sentient ants (formic acid is the chemical ants emit that was used so famously in the film Them!, also about an attack on humanity by giant ants, in which a young girl who survived one of the first ant attacks is given a vial of formic acid to sniff, and she recoils in panic and shrieks, “Them!”) who had overrun their home planet’s resources and were looking for a new world to conquer and occupy. According to the plot, Earth survived and drove off the Formics’ attack, but only barely and through the courage of a commander named Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who sacrificed his own life in a suicide attack that destroyed the Formics’ mothership and caused them to retreat and bide their time waiting for another shot at Earth. The early dialogue depicting the Formics as an implacable enemy that needed to be defeated in a pre-emptive war on their home planet sounds very much like what President George W. Bush and his staffers were saying to justify their attack on Iraq (though with the significant difference that at least the people in the story, unlike the Bush administration, were targeting the actual enemy that had launched the attack they were responding to, not a country of people with similar ethnicity to the 9/11 attackers but otherwise nothing to do with them!).

In the half-century since the last Formic attack, the nations of the world have come together to create the International Fleet to organize a worldwide campaign to prepare for the next one and resist it with less loss of (human) life than the “millions of innocent people” we’re repeatedly told died in the last one. They’ve also decided to recruit children (at least they did in the book — in the movie the actors look more like young teenagers and the fact that the cast members are just hitting puberty makes the sexlessness of the original material harder to take on screen) because, as Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), the kid who will rise to leadership despite all the privations the leaders of the training camp can think of, expresses it in an opening voiceover, “The International Fleet decided that the world’s smartest children are the planet’s best hope. Raised on war games, their decisions are intuitive, decisive, fearless. I am one of those recruits.” Ender’s father and brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) both washed out of the training but Ender is the great white hope of the two people currently in charge of it, Col. Graff (Harrison Ford, whose casting here only accentuates the already strong Star Wars parallels in the material) and his assistant, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, a strong actress believable in a multiplicity of roles who hasn’t become a major star only because it’s hard enough to cast middle-aged white women, let alone middle-aged Black ones!), who are spying on all the trainees as they go through their rituals looking for the One who can command the fleet successfully if and when the Formics attack. The training takes place in a giant room on board a space station which is supposed to be in zero gravity (according to an “Trivia” poster, the actors did their own stunt work and were trained by Cirque du Soleil performers to look convincing doing the wire work necessary for them to look weightless on screen), though the script (written by Gavin Hood, who also directed) pretty much ignores the hint it drops early on that in zero gravity there is no “up” or “down” — perhaps because on a movie screen there are very well defined ups and downs and director Hood and whoever helped him stage this action can’t help but follow them.

I had imagined Ender being 12 instead of 14 (at an age where that two-year difference matters) and I had imagined the room being far more circular and less full of objects, but the basics of the story are pretty much the same: Ender prevails throughout the training and survives not only the physical and mental hazards but also the deliberate traps set for him by Graff and Anderson (and the third authority figure, drill sergeant Dap [Nonso Anozie], who’s essentially a Black version of the R. Lee Ermey character from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), who want him deliberately kept miserable and isolated from the rest of the trainees so he will be forced to stand out all the more by comparison. This involves turning the other trainees against him so he’ll be bullied and thereby show whether or not he has the “right stuff” to take it. Eventually Ender and his crew get to enter the last level of training, a series of increasingly elaborate computer-simulated war games to prepare them for an attack on the Formics’ home planet — only, in Card’s big surprise ending that just about anybody who’s read the book vividly remembers, these aren’t simulations: Ender and his crew, unbeknownst to them, are leading the International Fleet’s forces in a real pre-emptive attack on the Formics’ planet which ends in its annihilation and the deaths of virtually all the Formics in a genocidal bloodbath. On paper this is an unalloyed triumph for the human race which we’re clearly meant to take as a morally unambiguous victory for the good guys, but on screen this is followed by a 15-minute postlude in which Ender travels to another planet, finds a dying Formic watching over an egg that’s supposed to hatch another colony — including a queen (the gimmick is that, like terrestrial ants, individual Formics other than the queen have no free will at all and simply follow her direction — which was how Ender figured out how to destroy the Formics in the first place; kill the queens and the others will die because there will literally be no one telling them via telepathy how to function) — and his guilt feelings over presiding over the destruction of an entire planet and his population lead Ender to take the queen egg and ensure it hatches so the Formic race will be preserved and hopefully there can be a modus vivendi between it and us.

Also in the character mix is the winner of the last Formic War, Mazer Rackham — they weren’t going to get an actor of the prestige (and pay) of Ben Kingsley just to be a few grainy-looking flashback in footage supposedly representing old videos — who turns up heavily tattooed on his face (he’s supposed to be a Maori from New Zealand and this is his traditional appearance) and it’s explained that he merely faked his own death 50 years earlier. (In the book he is dead, but appears to Ender via Einsteinian tinkering with space and time.) Mazer is there basically because if you’re going to rip off Star Wars you need a Yoda — that’s also what Leonard Nimoy is doing in the current run of Star Trek movies, interacting on the same plane with his younger self played by Zachary Quinto — and Ender’s Game on film comes off as Star Wars meets Tom Brown’s School Days (the 19th century novel that became the prototype for all stories about kids at a new school who come in wearing their precociousness on their sleeves, and the existing bullies who try to knock it off) meets The Truman Show meets just about every quest legend from Moses to Arthur to Frodo Baggins to (dare I say it?) Luke Skywalker involving the young, naïve boy who gets caught up in a series of events that charge him with nothing less than saving his people from some dire human or natural (or both) calamity. Like the book, it’s great entertainment if you don’t think too deeply about what it’s about and what Card’s overall message is — which, though softened by that ending sequence (I’m sure a lot of Right-wing sci-fi fans who loved Ender’s Game for the same thing about it that bothered me when I read the book — the glorification of militarism and machismo not only as necessary elements of a response to an existential threat but as values in themselves, as the most true, beautiful and righteous way a person can live — watched the tacked-on ending of the film and thought, “Ah, Liberal Hollywood strikes again!”), is that the military virtues are timeless absolutes and need to be protected from piss-ant political leaders who want to question or squander them.

I liked the movie for what it was — ignore the broader issues of what it’s about and the quasi-fascistic world view Orson Scott Card clearly intended the reader/viewer to accept, and it’s a fun space-opera shoot-’em-up with an intriguing central character and surprisingly little on-screen violence. One problem with the film is the sheer weight of the computer-generated imagery; so much of it is CGI that the high-tech spaceships both sides are flying look an awful lot like each other and it’s hard even to tell who is who, much less whom to root for. Still, it’s well acted — Asa Butterfield is absolutely haunting and nails his transition from scared little kid to experienced battlefield commander to guilt-ridden recluse (just this afternoon I watched some of Lawrence of Arabia on TCM and mentally added that film to the many ones which have influenced Ender’s Game since it, too, was about a man who led a battle group that won a war against all odds and then was wracked by doubts as to whether he really did the right thing) and more than holds his own against old pros like Harrison Ford (no stranger to science fiction with the three original Star Wars movies and Blade Runner on his résumé!), Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis. It’s a good movie but, even with Gavin Hood’s “soft” ending (Orson Scott Card is listed as a producer but that was apparently just a “courtesy title” and he had little or nothing to do with the film other than creating the original novel and selling the rights to it), it’s still an ardently pro-military film which communicates a quasi-fascistic view of the world. It would probably have been a major hit if it had been made and released in the first year or two after 9/11, but the Zeitgeist has moved on and that — as well as the lack of a romance between Ender and Petra to appeal to the young-adult female audience that largely powered the success of the Twilight and Hunger Games cycles in print and on film — is probably why it flopped.