Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Cinema File #270: "Ender's Game" Review

One should never let the sometimes vile and disgusting personal views of an artist interfere with an earnest appreciation for the art they create. Great stories can come from even the darkest places, and it does us all a disservice to let tangential prejudices be a distraction. Noted science fiction author Orson Scott Card has become newly famous for two things of late, as the mind behind the latest sci-fi epic adaptation Ender's Game, and as a virulent homophobe and general right wing crank. In a perfect world those two things would have nothing to do with each other, but as the calls for a nationwide boycott continue, it seems many people can't get past Card's ideological dickishness, which is really a shame, because in the context of 2013 sci-fi cinema, the new film that bears his name in very small politically correct print is actually one of the better ones.

Ender's Game follows the titular Ender Wiggan as he trains to become the next great military commander in a future world ruled by the military following a devastating alien invasion. Said aliens are the insectoid Formics, a species just mysterious and uncommunicative enough to invite skepticism about what we're told of their motives and activities, setting the tone for the kind of twists upon twists common to this style of science fiction. When everything is on a need to know basis, the canny viewer is constantly waiting for the reveal of that one bit of vital information we don't yet know, and constantly questioning everything we see for the hidden clue to what's really going on. That's of course only if you've never read the book and don't already know what the big twist is, though I imagine it wouldn't be too hard to guess once things get going, which I can't say is a criticism of the story, but certainly hampered my enjoyment of it a bit.

I'd read the book in highschool, but had largely forgotten most of the details as it wasn't one I had a particular fondness for. No disrespect to Card, but by the time I got to Ender's Game, I'd already torn through Asimov, Ellison, and Heinlein, so the bar was set pretty high as far as my tastes for classic literary science fiction. By the time it all clicked for me and I remembered what this was all leading to, I realized that a fundamental problem of adapting a story like this is that the ultimate reveal, perhaps slightly more shocking in 1985 when the book was originally published, is now entirely too predictable. Even if I didn't know it was coming, I would have seen it coming a mile away, and especially after a summer movie season including Oblivion, a film so derivative of sci-fi movies past that it might as well have been a primer for the uninitiated, anyone interested enough in this genre to see both films would have no trouble seeing the blueprint for this one in the first ten minutes.

That being said, even if the shock value has been diminished by time and competition, Ender's Game is still done very well, and much better than one might think possible given how much of the source material represents an introspective character study of a complex, juvenile protagonist. Hugo's Asa Butterfield is able to capture the ambiguities of Ender effortlessly, achieving a complicated balance between the innocent child he is and the cold, calculating killer he's trying so hard to become. A criticism often levied at this story is that it places Ender, a child prepared to be capable of committing mass genocide, as a sort of blameless monster, and while I'm not sure where I stand on this interpretation, unless someone pointed it out before or after seeing the movie, it would likely never occur to you, which is a testament to Butterfield's sympathetic performance.

Also, for a movie centered around something as silly as teenage military leaders placed in control of weapons of mass destruction with the fate of the planet at stake, this is one of the more plausible cinematic future worlds in recent memory. Technologically, its mostly free of the kinds of gimmicky pseudo-futuristic nonsense that dooms so many other sci-fi stories by either blurring the line between science and magic, or being so obvious that they just beg to be rendered dated by the natural arc of progress. Terrestrial fighter planes look like real fighter planes, just slightly advanced, and space stations still have Babylon Five style rotating segments acknowledging the limitations of operating in zero gravity. The kids even still use e-mail, and they don't try to use some stupid future-y name for it to make the same concept sound out of this world.

If you've been avoiding Ender's Game because of Orson Scott Card's offensive stupidity, but would otherwise be inclined to see a movie like this, than I would highly recommend leaving politics aside and giving it a chance. The closest it comes to aligning with Card's views is the ironic realization that the oppressive fascist militarism the narrative seems to criticize would in the real world be the direct result of the right wing dickery he now advocates. Well, that and a somewhat awkward moment when a drill sergeant adamantly insists on strict gender segregation in the space station bathrooms. I suppose the oppressive fascist military of the Heinlein-inspired Starship Troopers universe with its co-ed showers is just a bit more liberal and sexually progressive. Card is no Heinlein, and Ender's Game isn't anything close to great classic science fiction, but its thoroughly entertaining and well worth checking out while its still in theaters.
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