Ender’s Game

Note: This review will contain no discussion of Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card. I already have plenty of things to grouch about with this, adding the largely unrelated views of a one-hit-wonder author would make this way too long.

That's one big X-Wing.

That’s one big X-Wing.

Ender’s Game is – let’s be clear here – a classic of our times. Aside from being a deeply affecting and surprisingly prophetic sci-fi story, it’s the premier work of the age on the complicated mix of duty, pride, loneliness and angst felt by students and children the world over. Seriously – Adrian Mole? Tom Brown? Arthur Read? Freakin’ Harry Potter? They have nothing on Ender Wiggin.

The problem with this is that no one seems to realize it, least of all author Orson Scott Card. Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide – the sequels to the story – are much more traditional cosmic sci-fi stories, to the extent that the latter has the exact same plot as Halo 4 – and again, I’m being completely serious. All you console gamers who like Halo? Have you played the decently-received video game Halo 4, and paid attention to the story? Great, now you don’t need to read the award winning novel Xenocide.

It’s emblematic of the main problem with sci-fi as a genre – people paying too much attention to the fantastical world, as opposed to the thematic reasons for it. The point of Harry Potter is not a kid who’s learning to be a wizard, it’s coming-of-age, and the fact that all the life skills he’s learning are literal magic is meant to exaggerate that.

But all too often people won’t realize that, and sometimes those people get put in charge of making sequels and adaptations of works by people who did understand. A few of those people got together a couple years ago, and the result is the film of Ender’s Game.

We open on the title character. Normally I generally leave storied characters like him out of my nicknaming fun, but Movie Ender doesn’t deserve that honor. And so, this is our introduction to Benedict “Ender” Cumberbaby.

Insert your own Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century joke here.

Insert your own Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century joke here.

No joke (well, not all joke) – this kid’s complete lack of emotion, flat voice, Romantic-poet appearance, and fighting skill matched only by a lack of social skill combine to make one of my generation’s most relatable literary heroes into a carbon copy of Sherlock’s Sherlock – the self-proclaimed sociopath whose two most endearing traits are his attractiveness and the aforesaid complete lack of social skills. It’s a crying shame.

Anyway, Cumberbaby lives in the near future, where humanity has been crippled after an invasion by alien bugs, who we barely managed to defeat in a war that looks uncannily like that boring battle from Revenge of the Sith (Oh, speaking of iconic child heroes being ruined by poor acting and writing…). The bugs have exhausted humanity’s resources and numbers to such an extent that all children are considered candidates to enter Hogfighters, the space-military school made to train child soldiers for the next war. Ender qualifies for Hogfighters after he stands up to a group of bullies by attacking one of them until he passes out, and threatening the others. This is the problem with turning the little kid (although the actor is 16, the character was 6 at this point in the book) into a Cumberbaby – where in the book this was obviously a scared kid lashing out under stress and showing his potential by instinctively knowing the most effective way to fight back, here it just seems like something a bad guy would do to his enemies, like we see a flash frame to twenty years later and he’s Elijah Wood.

I don’t like seeing actors typecast, but on the other hand Elijah Wood makes a great crazy murderer.

I don’t like seeing actors typecast, but on the other hand Elijah Wood makes a great crazy murderer.

But Harrison Ford and Viola Davis, the mother and father figures to the children of Hogfighters, decide that this means Ender is ready. So they walk in on his family to take him.

Now, this is one thing that the movie gets right. There’s no possible way they could adapt the extensive subplot about Ender’s family in the book, but they do a good job of compressing it so it serves as backstory instead: His whole family has been created specifically by the government breeding program to be the best possible candidates for Hogfighters, but they all failed before him: His parents because they were in love, his brother because he was too evil, and his sister because she was too good. The latter two’s impulses are supposed to be balanced in Ender, which we know because he says those exact words himself.

Anyway, Ender arrives at Hogfighters, which is in space. Beyond that, it works just like any other military school in movies – there’s the angry drill sergeant, the benevolent elderly general (a role which Harrison Ford is completely wasted in) and camaraderie between the recruits as they do menial activities.

This last part is handled badly – since it’s the part that requires Ender to act like the functioning human he no longer is, the scenes feel misplaced – the lead character transforms into a completely different person, who acts like he wants to make friends with his fellows instead of plotting to murder them. In another movie, I’d like these scenes more, especially since they’re set in some creative CGI sets in the various spaceborne classrooms of Hogfighters.

You can tell they’re trying to be more faithful than was wise, here - all the “enemy gate is down”, “Dragon Army has never lost a battle” stuff is in there, but they make almost no sense in context.

You can tell they’re trying to be more faithful than was wise, here – all the “enemy gate is down”, “Dragon Army has never lost a battle” stuff is in there, but they make almost no sense in context.

The most creative and computer-generated of these is the Battle Room, where the students play against each other in specially assigned teams. This scene – exactly this scene – is where the pacing of the movie starts to fall apart. I know they have to adapt a good-sized novel with an ending that’s hugely compressed even in the original, but I don’t like how this turns into a very basic progression: Ender shows he’s a stone cold killer, gets promoted to the next level, has friction with his brand new peers, trains to be better than them, and repeat. This lasts for most of the film, and the first point in particular is exacerbated by the whole “being evil” business.

For instance, Ender’s first promotion comes when he takes his Kobayashi Maru test, and instead of cheating like Captain Kirk, he just murders everyone possible – which the computer takes as a win condition. While Harrison Ford is (obviously) impressed and promotes him to a position in a high ranking army, Ender is horrified at himself for being so eager to kill, while the audience is going “Wait, so he’s regretful about killing people? Is this one’a those good guy bad guy deals? Like Dexter? Oh sure, I love the guy on Dexter.”

To this end, Ender is assigned to an army commanded by a hideous Frankenstein of racial stereotypes (well, this is the Halloween season, I guess). He forms a rapport with Petra, a veteran space fighter played by…hell, I don’t know. Abigail Breslin? Saoirse Ronan? Hailee Steinfeld? Emma Stone? Don’t ask me.

They start practicing together, and soon they start to hear love interest bells in the air. Commander Frankenstein doesn’t want any distractions in the army, and separates them. Even though this is the first real friendship he’s had for the whole damn movie, his reaction never gets more drastic than “open mouth, furrowed brow”:

"Yes, this is how humans...er, how we humans appear under duress?"

“Yes, this is how humans…er, how we humans appear under duress?”

He takes his frustrations out in his first battle with the army: Even though Commander Frankenstein orders him to stay back he goes off on his own and wins almost single-handedly. This is enough to get him a promotion, to command of his own army.

This is not a tenable military strategy – promoting someone because they made one decision smarter than their commanding officer. This is a movie, though – he has to be in command of the entire Earth army by the third act (no joke), so his rise up the ranks goes beyond meteoric to…tachyonic? Sure, let’s go with that.

Now we get to the elephant in the room when it comes to this movie: Specifically, the fact that it was made in the wake of Harry Potter. Those had all but the exact same setup – normal boy goes to strange CGI-filled school and has to balance coming of age with saving the world – but they were made so fast they were pretty much a ten-year ongoing experimental film series…and there were quite a few things that Hollywood has learned from that grand experiment. And although this leads to a lack of repetition in the Quidditch battles and so forth, solving the repetition problem just causes a pacing problem to spring up in its place.

Thus, in the very next scene after Ender becomes a commander, he’s been playing for months and have advanced to the best in the school, such that they play against Commander Frankenstein with huge disadvantages and still win. Are montages uncool now? Are they passe all of a sudden?

After Ender beats Frankenstein, though, he ambushes him while they’re both naked in the shower. There’s a fight, and Commander Frankenstein ends up with his neck bolts falling out and his skin unstitched.

This would be a really intense and affecting scene if done right – again, it was supposed to show how Ender was a brilliant tactician and warrior, but he’s still a scared and compassionate little kid beneath all that – the two forces in deep inner turmoil in our hero, with the dark side taking control and him being scared.

But he never seemed to have any good side in the first place: He screams after he realizes he’s killed his enemy, but it feels like a war cry rather than a shout of anguish:

I'm not doing a "KHAAAAAN" joke here - see, JJ Abrams? That's a little thing called self control.

I’m not doing a “KHAAAAAN” joke here – see, JJ Abrams? That’s a little thing called self control.

Afterwards, Ender decides he’s gone too far and tries to drop out of space military school, but Harrison Ford is having none of it. He calls in Ender’s too-nice sister too provide some tough love counseling (which doesn’t make sense at all), which eventually convinces him to sacrifice his own well-being for the sake of saving the human race. Because only Harrison knows that the enemy alien fleet is about to arrive at the planet!

Ender takes an FTL spaceship (hey, we have FTL spaceships now? Why have we not heard about this?) to the secret lair of Ben Kingsley. Remember how I said Ender goes up in rank every few minutes? He now outranks Harrison Ford, so his trainer becomes Kingsley, who was the Space George Washington of the last war, and is now a sort of Mr. Miyagi figure, with aboriginal/Maori iconography instead of Chinese/Japanese.

He starts programming Ender a series super-elaborate simulations filled with boring and confusing CGI ships – meant to simulate real space warfare in every way. Ender once again does his customary single-scene rise through the ranks as Harrison Ford grumbles about how great he is at battling, but there’s definitely an air of finality to this one: Maybe it’s the aforementioned grumbling having some dramatic backing music to it, maybe it’s all of Ender’s buddies coming over to Kingsleywarts to help him out – with the love interest girl getting a place of honor, of course – but it’s probably the fact that they actually sprung for a montage to show how he advances and overcomes obstacles. Finally, we’re getting an idea of how difficult war-fighting actually is, and how great Ender is at it! Hooray! I’m starting to feel something!

Granted, it’s a sort of condescending approval because of how corny this is, but that’s something!

Granted, it’s a sort of condescending approval because of how corny this is, but that’s something!

Oh no, right, this is an evil guy, and the Cumberbaby destroys my investment in the story just like he destroys everything else: On his final exam, his love interest solder is given a BFG 9000 to shoot. After finding the bad guy inner sanctum surprisingly easy to penetrate, Ender shoots the gun at the aliens’ home planet, which stops the entire alien bug command process on the spot, crippling every single one of the enemy’s forces.

In the books, this was a serious “screw everything” moment (remind you of certain people at the end of their required schooling?) Ender had gotten fed up with being made to fight, and had decided to blow up a planet because it would show once and for all that he was too evil to serve them anymore. Here, since everyone knows that already, it seems perfectly in character, and no one – not even Ender himself – thinks twice about it. In fact, it just seems like a pretty basic video game strategy – fire the BFG 9000 once at the boss as soon as the battle begins, use all your armor power-ups until it recharges, fire it again, and it’s dead.

And then we have…the Twist. Capital T-twist, although it’s closer to a lowercase one here: These super-realistic simulations of war was actually just plain war the whole time: This latest five-minute military career has been Ender soundly defeating the alien bugs single-handedly ending the war (oh, I get it, Ender! Hee hee hee! Say hundreds of people about an hour later), and his video game strategy involved sacrificing millions of his own men, and committing genocide for an alien race that, at the end, had all but laid down their arms and surrendered.

Ender immediately withdraws into anger and sadness, finally expressing those feelings of compassion that had lain dormant in him for so long.

Hey, this looks sort of familiar... 

Hey, this looks sort of familiar…

What follows is a pretty faithful – if distilled – adaptation one of the famous denouements in modern literature. Essentially, it’s the framing device of The Lorax: Ender/the narrator goes to a faraway planet/faraway town where the grickle grass grows, too see the old Once-ler/old alien queen. The storyteller is then entrusted with the very last Truffula seed/alien egg clutch, telling him to retell his story and learn from everyone’s mistakes.

It’s one of the best-adapted parts of the book, given how unreal it all seems and how powerful it is to see the crazy alien bugs telepathically saying how sorry they are. Real old style sci=fi stuff – all the war could have been avoided if people were less quick to cause harm or more eager to communicate.

But though there were some good decisions made in adapting Ender’s Game to the screen, the book still towers over the film.

Only the first book, though. Part of me wanted this film to succeed just so I could laugh at an adaptation of Speaker for the Dead.

TWO THUMBS UP: Family matters, The Lorax

THUMBS UP: Hogfighters and all of Ender’s friends

THUMBS DOWN: Bad pacing and undeveloped motivations

TWO THUMBS DOWN: Cumberbaby

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