Care to Bet on the Outcome?


ERIK YATES: Orson Scott Card’s epic novel Ender’s Game is the tale of our future after having defeated an alien invasion.  Hoping to prepare for another invasion, an international military force has begun training children in the art of war hoping to cultivate the very best tactical minds who can adapt quickly and process information and recognize patterns in ways that give our armies the upper-hand.  Children are seen to have the ability to do this at a greater rate than adults and so therefore families have children for the purpose of creating our saviors, of any future attack, now.

The book is quite the page turner, and is yet a quick read but is quite detailed in helping you see the development of our child hero, Ender Wiggin, from school-boy prodigy to battle commander over years of intense training.  The film has two hours to take you through not only Ender’s development, but also through the political manipulation behind the scenes and the interpersonal relationships of those Ender encounters in Battle School as well as those whom he has left behind on Earth while he trains in an orbiting space station.  As someone who read the book, I have some very specific feelings on whether they accomplished that goal or not, but I have to ask Jim Tudor, as someone who did not read the book, did you feel that the movie created a universe that drew you in and connected you to Ender’s journey and the plight the Earth was facing?

JIM TUDOR: I have to say, having been made to sit through the unimpressive trailer over and over again, my expectations were pretty low.  It looked to me like another by-the-numbers “chosen one“ story wrapped up in a ton of C.G.I.  This is despite having known people who rave about how good the book is.  Just last night, a friend assured me it is a modern classic of the sci-fi genre.  While I believed him, now having seen the movie adaptation, I can now understand how that might be the case.  When it ended, book fans in the audience of my preview screening were immediately talking about how this is a “perfectly adequate” translation to the screen of a story that, on the page, is very interior.  It is definitely an interesting movie, as it’s in no hurry, and goes about things at its own set pace that weirdly, in that regard (and that regard only), resembles a foreign film.

Although this is more or less a “chosen one” story, the way the system within the story goes about doing the choosing reminded more of how the monks choose the Dalai Lama in Kundun than anything in Christianity, which for many is the first religion that springs to mind when something is described as a “chosen one” story.  Young Asa Butterfield (Hugo) does a solid job carrying the film as Ender, although Harrison Ford (Star Wars) is top billed, effectively playing the brash military superior who sees promise in the kid from the outset.

As a book fan, do you agree that this film is “perfectly adequate”?

ERIK: Adequate is probably appropriate.  For those who love the book, much is left out.  I expected this to happen as you only have two hours to tell the story on film whereas the book can contain all kinds of information, and take its time developing a whole world.  Visually, this film worked pretty well to convey what the pages describe, especially the battle room.  That being said, the whole battle school feels rushed compared to the book, cutting out one of the squads Ender is assigned to, and rushing through the training, never really showing him training the “misfits” that eventually comprise his squadron, or seeing how he learned from the various battles.

One big plot device of the book is how they constantly throw his squad into battle after battle, sometimes multiple battles a day to push him to a breaking point.  You never get the sense in the film that Ender is ever really in danger, though in the book, they realize they must push him past his breaking point if he is to withstand an assault from the alien race.  There are other shortcuts throughout the film that fans of the book may get angry at.  For example, Ender’s brother Peter gets about one minute of screen time despite being a driving force for Ender, and the story line of the plot that both Peter and Valentine concoct on Earth while Ender is away is cut completely from the story. I understood the need cinematically to take shortcuts and just give the audience enough information to keep the plot moving, but in the end, they essentially gut much of Ender’s development (both emotional and tactical), as well as any sense that he’s in danger.  The “chosen one” element you allude to seems to trump any opportunities to challenge the audience to fear for Ender and thus be captivated by this story.  So adequate is probably a fair word.

Despite this, I spoke with a friend who read the book over 10 years ago, and he came away feeling much better about the film than I and another friend who recently read the book did.

On a side note, when they show a flashback to the original alien invasion, we get a glimpse of the alien ships.  When the camera panned to a wide shot to show you more of the battle, the alien ships to me looked like mini-versions of the Millennium Falcon.  Having Harrison Ford show up a few scenes later just made me think how excited I am to possibly see him in the upcoming Star Wars film.  But I digress.

JIM:  No, I saw that too!  It cuts to Harrison Ford watching footage of a battle with those ships flying through an asteroid field, and the shot that’s on right before he shifts focus is an almost verbatim recreation of one from The Empire Strikes Back!  When I saw that, I kind of thought, “Oh, here we go…  This movie is going to be annoyingly packed with distracting references to other movies.”  But thankfully, that was the only one I saw.  It was almost as though director Gavin Hood thought to go ahead and get any Star Wars acknowledgement out of the way early, so he could then move on with his own film.

I should mention that knowledge of the participation of Gavin Hood had contributed to my low expectations of Ender’s Game.  Although he came at us several years ago from his native South Africa with the well-regarded film Tsotsi, his foray into Hollywood blockbusters, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was a putrid disaster.  But again thankfully, with this film (which he also bears screenplay credit), he proves once again that he can indeed direct a movie – even one as chock-full of a lot of digital this-and-that as this one is.  He uses a lot of close ups in scenes of characters talking to one another, but it’s unobtrusive, and not anti-cinematic, which can be the case in going that route.  Likewise, his battle scenes are well executed.  The film has a ready-for-blu-ray slickness and sheen about it, but it’s not out of place.  In a lot of science fiction films, the ships and especially the costumes can easily look embarrassing.  Hood hired the proper craftspeople to ensure that Ender’s Game has the necessary dignity it requires.

The movie left me thinking, though.  For a story that is, for the most part, so unapologetically militaristic in its worldview, it does take a few surprising turns.  I’ll leave it at that, although any such turns are probably not enough to sway the many sure-to-be-appalled left wing film critics who can’t get passed the movie’s hawkish notion of a pre-emptive military state as an acceptable norm, and probably went in already having burnt Orson Scott Card (who moonlights as a right wing radio show host) in effigy.  Ender’s Game is far from being any kind of Tea Party tract, but it is of a different mind than most modern filmic takes on the military and warfare.

I do wonder though, in this day and age of widespread non-engagement with the nation’s military conflicts (as Americans, we pretty much live our lives as normal while our country operates in numerous overseas wars), will a film like this one that is all about the life of a recruit in a ridged training regimen lifestyle be of interest to the culture at large?

ERIK: There is that element, and yet we must remember it was written in the 1980’s at the height of the cold-war where all-out war was a forgone conclusion.  Think of the films of the day such as WarGames, Red Dawn, and the like. The idea of an alien invasion wiping us out completely vs. a nationalistic war to me doesn’t preclude the possibility of pre-emptive action even if your politics run left when it comes to your country’s foreign policy and war, as alien invasion is fiction.  I would hope that people could separate the two, though it does raise the question for us to consider here in our culture as well.  Good science fiction challenges notions like that, and here it is no different.

But as much as Orson Scott Card might be “right-wing” in his personal politics, the character of Ender seems to encapsulate a more “liberal” ideology in a classical sense of empathy, caring, and a desire for peace despite being raised in a culture of war.  So I think both sides of the political spectrum are represented, but you make a great larger point that our detachment, even if we are passionate on the issue of war and pre-emptive engagement, may drive an apathy that an “adequate” movie will not be able to overcome.  And this is where I think Ender’s Game fails: it simply does not delve into any situation, relationship, or ethic long enough to shake the apathy loose and cause us to feel something beyond what we entered the theater with.  Besides this, it looks good, hits a lot of right notes, and will entertain many.  Those who read the book will find more wrong with the screen adaptation than those who didn’t, but in the end this film will be remembered mainly as a placeholder until Thor: The Dark World, and Catching Fire hit the screen over the next few weeks.

Ben Kingsley arrives late in the film, looking more Mandarin than The Mandarin.

JIM:  I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s more than a placeholder.  After the film, people were ambling out of the auditorium in that kind of satisfied puzzled funk that one only gets from having experienced something that proved to be under-the-skin engaging.  For most of us, I think this takeaway took us by surprise, since like I said before; the film’s marketing has been no great shakes.  (Besides the lame trailer, there is the poster:  Ender’s Game!  Tagline:  “This is no game”.  Huh??)  Whether the working-out of that that puzzlement results in a positive or negative collective perception of the film, we can’t yet say.  But personally, if they filmed the sequel books, I’d watch those movies.

But, in order for any such films to stick, they need to speak to current audiences in a relevant way.  Sure, the source material is from the Cold War-reeling 1980s, but this movie is from 2013.  First and foremost, it belongs to this time and place.  Which is the trickiness that plagues any kind of adaptation of meaty source material that is tethered intrinsically to some other very specific zeitgeist.  (Case in point:  Watchmen.)  Ender’s Game succeeds in leaving us questioning the outcome of it all.  And if that doesn’t speak to the political and cultural here and now, I don’t know what does.  That questioning is most certainly by design, and a successful finish to a perfectly competent film.  Yes, there are ethical and systemic questions being asked and then abandoned by the screenplay right and left, but the cumulative effect of it all lands us in the positive.  I don’t mean to say that this elevates Ender’s Game beyond “adequate”, but I can certainly appreciate it.