Why the ‘Ender’s Game’ Movie Fails as Sci-Fi

The novel succeeds where the movie doesn’t

Why the ‘Ender’s Game’ Movie Fails as Sci-Fi Why the ‘Ender’s Game’ Movie Fails as Sci-Fi

Uncategorized November 6, 2013 0

Lionsgate image Why the ‘Ender’s Game’ Movie Fails as Sci-Fi The novel succeeds where the movie doesn’t Vague alien threats. Preemptive strikes. Children forced... Why the ‘Ender’s Game’ Movie Fails as Sci-Fi
Lionsgate image

Why the ‘Ender’s Game’ Movie Fails as Sci-Fi

The novel succeeds where the movie doesn’t

Vague alien threats. Preemptive strikes. Children forced to fight wars for their elders. Drones on the battlefield. The death of privacy. Ender’s Game is Hollywood’s latest attempt to bring military science fiction to the big screen, and it’s weighed down by more baggage than the aunt you only see around the holidays.

Space is big this year. Gravity was a surprise hit. Can Hollywood deliver another solid sci-fi story set in the cosmos while juggling the heavy military and ethical themes the story brings up? No. No it can’t.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Wolf Gang/Flickr photo

Military science fiction

In 1985, Orson Scott Card published Ender’s Game, an expansion of his 1977 short story of the same title. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, shed light on maneuver warfare and is now required reading in high schools across the United States.

A big Hollywood picture was inevitable. Card perhaps knew this, and has been cagey about making the movie. Studios have courted him for decades, but he’s remained firm in his desire to retain a modicum of creative control.

Sad, then—that after almost 30 years of buildup—the blue and orange tinged two-hour film about a military space camp was what audiences got. Ender’s Game is one of those movies that’s entertaining in the theater but falls apart on the ride home.

Characters are introduced and the burden of their emotional impact on the story is left to the viewers imagination. The adult actors seem to realize this. Harrison Ford thunders around and is cashing a paycheck, Viola Davis looks tired and Ben Kingsley plays Mazer Rackham like the nasty gangster Don Logan from Sexy Beast on tranquilizers. The child actors Moises Arias and Asa Butterfield are bright spots in an otherwise bland cast—their performances are both earnest and nuanced.

But the movie suffers the most because it suffocates the novel’s big ideas.

Publicity image for Ender’s Game. Lionsgate image.

Speaker for the dead

Spoilers inbound. The themes of Ender’s Game are heavy. Children are asked to train for a war against alien creatures they've only seen in film reels. Special military academies are established for the purpose of training military child geniuses.

Propaganda posters litter the background. Privacy is a right that can be given and taken away. The military can show up and take your children away. Birth rates are regulated. All of this is fascinating, but it’s all given lip service, glanced over so the story can push forward.

It’s as if the filmmakers knew they had to hit certain key moments from the novel and then move on. See Ender almost kill a classmate. See Ender win all the games. See Ender’s genius for strategy. See Ender commit genocide without knowing it.

It all happens very fast. And the audience never has time to pause and reflect on what’s going on, or what this says about themselves or the society this movie reflects. The world these characters inhabit is obviously fascistic. Child soldiers use drones to fight a war, all the while assuming they’re playing an advanced video game.

But can we stop, take a breath and digest all these things? Talk about the implications of children in conflict and the use of robots to fight war from a distance? No, we can’t. It’s not allowed. This is a holiday tent-pole film, and it must proceed at a breakneck speed. It must entertain without asking too much of its audience.

It’s a shame given that so much of the story falls flat. Much is made of the prescient nature of science fiction, and much of what Card was writing about over 20 years ago is reflective of our current conflicts.

Joseph Kony roams Africa with a child army and FARC conscripts the youth of the Colombian villages they claim to protect. The U.S. military patrols the sky with drones, their pilots oceans away. There is so much of Ender’s Game that provides space for social commentary about these issues, but with so many big ideas that aren't allowed to breathe, the entire movie drowns.

A better military sci-fi film, Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 movie Starship Troopers—based on the novel by Robert Heinlein—took the subject’s militaristic implications seriously but parodied it in an ironic send-up of propaganda films and American militarism. The heroes scream at a reporter for questioning official policy, charge at an enemy who’s been underestimated by faulty intelligence, only to be slaughtered to a score of blaring martial music.

Ender’s Game would have been a better film if it was half as clever.

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