Tuesday 17 February 2015

Ender's Game (Gavin Hood, 2013)

Feeling the need for some space-based entertainment I caved in and bought the DVD of Ender's Game. I had not seen the film when it was released, and have read neither the Orson Scott Card novel nor the original, much-praised short story from which it was expanded. That said, it is impossible to exist in the SF world and not pick up the gist of the plot by osmosis. I had also read the sequel, Speaker to the Dead, during my student years, and rather enjoyed it at the time, although I don't recall how much of the first book is recapitulated in that novel.

The film is no fun at all, although like all modern SF productions, the effects are beyond reproach. But it's dull, sterile, uninvolving, digitally flat - a simulation of a simulation.There is no context for any of the characters, no sense of why Ender came to be of significance to the world government, no sense of why he got the way he is, no sense of how his sister Valentine fits into the scheme - she's just there, and then absent for most of the film, until required again for plot stuff in the final reel. When Ender is scooped up into space and sent for training exercises in a giant orbital station, there's no jeopardy, no sense of impending threat, no intimation that anything bad might happen to any of the characters. The weightless combat scenes are slow, stiff, unengaging, and even when Ender and his team of young warriors aren't rendered digitally, their skintight silver outfits and body armour make them look like unconvincingly rendered CGI mannequins. These kids have been catapulted into space and forced into a strict military command structure, so they ought to feel freaked out and terrified, but the environment is entirely too pristine for us to feel that the kids are ever in danger. It's like a fight scene staged in the ELO space station.

Worse than that, though, is that the film can't resolve the major narrative thorn of the source material. Ender is being lied to - the battle simulations he's called on to direct (at least the later ones) aren't simulations at all, but realtime combat scenarios, enacted by crewed ships and drones under Ender's direct and indirect command. As SF fans, we probably know this - but the filmmakers are addressing a wider audience, and must have presumed that the majority of viewers would take the presented action at face value, as understood by Ender. That's a problem, though, because we're then faced with a film that mostly consists of kids playing computer games, except that they go up a level each time. When the big reveal happens, it's too late in the film to save the day - we've already tuned out. Worse, the additional game sequences in the film - Ender exploring a fantasy environment, which turns out to contain clues that will play a part in the resolution - look awfully crude. And we're not just watching Ender play the fantasy game - we're immersed in it, as if seeing things through Ender's eyes.

An alternative strategy might have been to let the viewer in on the fact that the simulations are "real", and then play with the dramatic irony inherent in Ender's continued naivety. But other than a hint or two, that's not the way the film chooses to go, and in any case it's hard to see how telling the story from the point of view of the "adult" battle planners would have been much more successful.

Fatally, when Ender does discover that he's been lied to, his reaction doesn't ring true at all. He's shocked to the core of his being by learning that he's been duped, and has just enabled the genocide of the aliens. But only a moment or two earlier, he was perfectly content to run through combat simulations using a doomsday weapon that could only ever be viewed as a direct rehearsal for exactly that genocide. So what exactly was your problem, Mr Wiggins?


  1. ...And that's also a valid review of the book. Minus the visual effects.

  2. Agree entirely, too much of the book was left out which leaves the characters too thinly drawn in the film, this badly effects the ending of the film. For example in the book Ender has pretty much worked out what's happening and what he's doing by the end and continues anyway.

  3. Shortly before I saw it, I listened to the audiobook, and at the end it had Orson Scott Card saying some things about the book. He talked about his attempt to write a screen adaptation, and how it just didn't work without seeing what was going on inside Ender's head. But when someone finally adapted it, they did it in precisely the way that he already said wouldn't work. And the bullshit loopholes that people tried to use for the adaptation contract, to make Ender a teenager with a love interest was hilarious.

    In the book, it's established that his brother and sister are gifted like Ender, but they were deemed unsuitable for the program. For example, his brother is brilliant but ambitious and ruthless, and during the book it periodically goes back to the political stuff he's getting up to. But in the movie, the brother is just some asshole with a violent temper. Also, the reason Ender was bullied in school (which I believe was mentioned in passing once) is that he's a "third". Parents are usually only allowed 2 children, so a 3rd is frowned upon.

    Also in the book, during the training, they were relentlessly applying pressure, changing the rules, pushing Ender and his team to exhaustion by having them compete far more often than any other team. There was a real sense of him being pushed to his breaking point, with his doubts, fears, and a growing desire to give up.

    When I saw the movie, I sort of enjoyed it, but mainly as a nice visual aid to the audiobook I'd recently listened to.

  4. First of all, I have declined to watch this movie for a simple reason: the book is so incredibly good that no movie will do it justice. If you’ve not read the book, please do so; but do so with a different view than that of an established science fiction author.

    Instead, read it as a fan of science fiction, or even as a non-fan. It’s a story about a boy, and that is why there isn’t apparent menace in most of it. The movie distorts the novel in a crucial manner: in the novel, all the children are between 5 and 8 years old. Andrew Wiggin is 6 to 7. The movie depicts them almost twice that age. This changes the naivete scale, as well as the brutal innocence of the characters.

    Earth has been pummeled by these aliens on two previous occasions, and governments know they will be returning and are training extremely gifted kids who qualify to meet the next attack when it comes. There are societal restrictions on who can have children; only those who meet the genetic criteria that might produce the super-soldiers required in the future. This is why everyone is resigned to the fact of the situation; all are focused on saving Earth in the future wave.

    The story is told through the eyes of young Andrew as he goes through training and distinguishes himself as a commander. Games reveal his skills, test and refine them, but they are always just games. When the big reveal comes, a 6-year old cannot grasp the enormity of what he’s been used to do. And neither can the reader. After all, this was only a story about a boy. It is only then that he gets his nickname “Ender.”

    Would the military train young children and dupe them into xenocide? Probably, if the threat were bad enough. Should any child be made a messiah and exterminator? What about violent video games? Would we play them if they were real? I couldn’t, and doubt you could either.

    Speaker for the Dead catches Ender as an adult, now speaking for the dead that he himself has caused. Death should not come to those we do not understand, is the point.

    I keep a few extra copies of Ender’s Game on hand to “loan” anyone who doesn’t think they will like science fiction. Two things always happen: First, I never get the loan returned, but that’s as it should be. It was actually a gift. Secondly, the gift includes a new appreciation for science fiction.

    Are there aspects to this premise that don’t make sense? Sure. Most books have those. That’s why suspension of disbelief is critical in science fiction, and Card achieves it. Two books come to mind: recently read “Wool” by Hugh Howey, an acclaimed bestseller. What a ridiculous story. Nothing happens. People somehow never thought to put an elevator in a silo, and the heroic action is walking from one silo to another. Another book that captivated me the first time I read it was “Chasm City,” by someone or other. But, on the second read, I realized what a silly notion the big reveal actually is. Doesn’t matter, I still like the book, and its author, whoever that might be.

  5. I heard Harrison Ford only emeged from his acting coma for the post-shoot party.

  6. .... I think I want to see a battle in the ELO Space Station.

  7. I've read all the books in the series and I quite liked the movie. I did, however, find myself filling in the gaps in my head in line with certain scenes which may have proved confusing otherwise!
    So I'm not surprised that people didn't like it.

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