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Film Review: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game (2013; Directed by Gavin Hood)

Orson Scott Card’s compelling late-1970s science fiction novel, once amusingly summarized as “Kids Accidentally Commit Genocide”, gets a handsome, (self-)serious, reasonably involving big-screen adaptation from South African writer/director Gavin Hood. The translation process preserves much of the material’s scope and moral dimension while scrubbing its less compromising elements and de-emphasizing its political implications, mind you. But the relative strength of the final product is notable given the long delays in eventual production, the downward pressures of Hollywood content policing, and the notoriously careful and outspoken nature of the narrative’s literary creator.

To properly discuss Ender’s Game and its themes and significations, rampant plot spoilers are inherently necessary. In addition to soliciting forgiveness for these, I’d ask for some tolerance of my attempts to analyze the particulars of the film’s adaptation of the novel, which despite my familiarity with its concept and themes, I have not read. Decades in the future, Earth is still recovering from the trauma of what was understood as a hostile invasion by locust-like extraterrestrials known as Formics. According to pre-packaged propaganda, the attack was fended off by the sacrifice of a brave pilot named Mazer Rackham, who detonated his payload into one of the Formic motherships and drove them off in a swarm back to their home planet.

In anticipation of another Formic attack that is consistently spoken of as being imminent, the best and brightest human children are being trained for battle strategy and warfare by a militaristic space agency called the International Fleet. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (the intense Asa Butterfield) is perhaps the most promising cadet in his or any age group in Battle School, defeating even his older peers at the war games that are the staple of their training and outflanking them physically and psychologically in the bully/bullied hierarchy of every school in every time.

Tested and challenged by his imperious superior and mentor Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender seeks to overcome the failings of his elder siblings, the aggressive Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and the empathetic Valentine (Abigail Breslin), by balancing the former’s ruthless application of force with the latter’s emotional intelligence. Or so International Fleet hopes, as they have singled Ender out as the likeliest candidate to lead a child-captained tech-fleet on a pre-emptive strike on the Formics’ home system. Gaining the allegiance and admiration of his fellow cadets and removing obstacles to his success such as antagonistic squad leader Bonzo (Moisés Arias), Ender builds a strong team, wins capture-the-flag-style battle-games in the space-dome arena of the orbital school, and hones his fleet command skills in anticipation of a final graduation game simulating an assault on the Formic planet.

As readers of Ender’s Game and its multitude of sequels will be aware and as fresh but astute viewers of the film will likely predict in the ramp-up to it, this climactic war “game” is no game at all. It’s a genuine assault under the cloak of a test exercise, and when Ender utilizes his battle arena stratagems to destroy all life on the Formic planet (living up to his heavy-handed nickname), it is revealed to be not a simulated but a real genocide. Having already met the very-much-alive Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley with Maori facial tattoos and a dodgy Kiwi accent) in the latter stages of his training, Ender is aware that the official version of the fightback against the Formic invasion is a propagandistic fabrication and that the Formics retreated like wounded animals after the blow to their homeship, like ants having lost their queen (although an ant colony without a queen doesn’t simply give up the ghost but continues toiling until dying out, but I digress). But Colonel Graff’s revelation of the boy’s leading role in wiping out an entire species is a further and greater disillusionment.

Published in 1985 at the height of Reagan America’s conservative sabre-rattling against the crumbling Soviet Union, Card’s novel was a distinctly unsubtle but nonetheless potent broadside against propagandistic Cold War discourse. Imagining a militarized future which brainwashed its children into becoming inadvertent genocidal warriors is no great stretch in speculative fiction; The Hunger Games has recently and lucratively turned our social concern for the protective space of childhood into a nightmarish cautionary tale of centralizing media and political control and of the concurrent spectacularizing of violence. Propaganda, militarism and a bureaucratic structure built on spin, deceit, and ideological framing can lead to great horrors, the self-identified moderate Democrat Card was saying.

This is a message of no less currency in the contemporary America of the War on Terror, with its indefinite detention, unconstitutional surveillance, and demonizing of foreign others and of domestic resisters alike. Hood’s adaptation gestures to the propagandistic hype and the institutional mistruths underlying the genocide, but deactivates the push-button associations to current affairs as much as possible. True, the fighters in the final assault are referred as drones, those robotic airborne precision-killers of the Obama Administration’s ceaseless covert war. But Card’s narrative reality of the unifying nature of the anti-Formic crusade holding political fragmentation and destabilizing planetary conflict at bay is glossed, or perhaps just saved for sequels that, given the milquetoast box office returns, may never happen.

There is much of this neutering of the source material, despite the general integrity of the onscreen product. The Formics are uniformly referred to as “Buggers” in the original text, emphasizing the ugly pejorative nature of the humans’ propaganda campaign (and perhaps crystallizing the publically anti-same-sex-marriage Card’s underlying homophobia in a symbolic association of Others). They are Formics alone in the film, reflecting a similar politically-correct shift by Card himself in the subsequent books in the series. Furthermore, Ender’s natural ruthlessness is diminished via the softening of his dispatching of the various bully figures aligned against him in Battle School. All of the boys he clashes with wind up dead on the page, but Hood’s film makes a particular point of recognizing that Bonzo, who bumps his head after trying to ambush Ender in the shower, survives at least, and that Ender is touched enough by the event to visit his injured rival’s hospital bed.

Not all of the changes and translations reduce the material’s affect, however. The animated “mind games” designed to test Ender’s mental acuity and moral compass are rendered a bit like PS3 cut-scenes, but rely hearteningly on symbolic connections to the textual themes without heavy-handed gestures towards enforced meanings. The expansion of the role of Ender’s sole female peer Petra (Hailee Steinfield) is sensibly done and never spirals into a conventional romantic subplot. Even if Ender’s Game is never quite exciting, can get enmeshed in the trap of its own sense of importance, and weakens its political applicability with progressive, corporate-derived sensitivity, it’s a solid, well-crafted vision of the material for the big screen whose failings are not those of artistic incompetence but of over-conscious self-censorship. It’s more a game than a real war, but what a convincing game it manages to be at most times.

 

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