November 21, 2013

ENDER'S GAME Should Have Been An HBO Series

"It matters how we win."
There's a pivotal scene in Ender's Game where the hero is attacked by an older boy while taking a shower.  In the book, Ender, ever the tactician, increases the water temperature to build up a cloud of steam and then lathers himself up with soap in order to prevent his assailant from getting a good grip on him.  It's a clever, quick-thinking maneuver on Ender's part.  In the film, we see Ender turn the shower knob and vacantly rub a bar of soap on his chest, but we never get the sense that these things have any bearing on the ensuing fight.  His actions are presented more as idle stage direction than character-based decisions, thus undercutting the value of his eventual victory.  That kind of sums up the whole movie right there.  At best, Gavin Hood's Ender's Game movie manages to perfectly replicate the experience of someone describing a book they read once in high school but now they only sort of remember it.  In other words, it captures all the broad strokes of the story but lacks any of the nuanced details.

Orson Scott Card may be a bigoted asshat, but his novel Ender's Game is one of my very favorite books of all time.  All of my electronic devices are named after Ender Wiggin's various compatriots and it's the only series of books that Jamie and I both own separate copies of.  To say that I've been looking forward to seeing this world realized on film would be putting it mildly, and while this adaptation certainly isn't terrible and might even be a pretty decent film on its own merits, it certainly doesn't live up to the tremendous promise of the original novel.  I almost would have preferred if the movie was an absolute trainwreck, because in a way Hood's almost-success is even more frustrating.

Pictured above is the Battle Room, a zero-G training facility where Ender and his fellow recruits play war games in order to develop teamwork and basic strategy.  The kids, all geniuses who've been pressed into military service to defend humanity from an alien threat, live on an orbiting space station called the Battle School and while their days are filled with classes and combat training, it's the battle game that really rules their lives.  They're divided into armies (think the different houses of Hogwarts) and the game's leaderboard looms over them in the communal cafeteria.  The majority of the book is spent detailing Ender Wiggin's rise through the ranks of Salamander and Rat armies, developing his own unique battle strategies that at first confound the other armies until eventually they become adopted as the norm.  Finally Ender is given command of the formerly disbanded Dragon Army and then pushed to the absolute breaking point, fighting battle after battle after battle until Ender is completely exhausted.  Eventually he's faced with a Kobayashi Maru scenario: going off only a few hours of sleep, Ender's is faced with an obstructed entrance into the Battle Room while two different enemies who've been given extra time to deploy their forces lie in wait to slaughter Ender's outmatched force.  It's the culmination of a lengthy attempt to physically and psychologically break the prepubescent general, and while Ender's response is brilliant, it's his motivation that's key: he enacts a preposterous strategy that he never expects to work in the hope that his failure will bring an end to his torment.

The Battle Room is one of those things that I've been DYING to see brought to life since the first time (of many) that I read the book.  It's an incredibly cool concept that's painted in vivid detail by Card and simply begging to live on the big screen.  The good news is that the Battle Room is presented perfectly, physically constructed exactly the way I've always imagined it.  And while the battles we see make for some great set pieces, unfortunately there are only about three of them.  It's the very best stuff in the book, but in the film it's almost fleeting.  We don't even get the courtesy of a montage showcasing a few of the book's more memorable moments.  (Bean's brilliant deadline swing is shown once with no explanation or fanfare, while "flashing the feet" is axed entirely.)  This is the fallout of one of the film's few creative changes, constricting the action to the course of about two months as opposed to a handful of years.  I'm sure the intention was to up the sense of urgency, but instead it just makes everything feel rushed.  It's seriously disappointing, even moreso because the Battle Room is so well executed that I actually wanted to to spend as much time there as possible.  The evolution of Ender's tactics from battle to battle makes for a fascinating journey and it's the kind of thing we so rarely see in modern military or action movies, which largely forego any sense of strategy in favor of more explosions.  Here it gets only the vaguest of lip service, conveying more the idea of tactical thinking rather than the actual tactics themselves.

The same problem plagues the entire movie: the Giant's Drink video game and the battle simulations at command school are two of the more memorable aspects of the original novel, and while each is brought to life with creative and effective visuals, both are blown through at breakneck speed, robbing them of any real emotional weight.  That goes double for the film's assortment of supporting roles, including Ben Kingsley's tattooed Mazer Rackham, Abigail Breslin's barely-present Valentine, and particularly Bean, Petra, Alai and the rest of Ender's jeesh.   These are all rich characters, most of whom were eventually promoted to starring roles in the various Ender sequels and spin-offs.  But here none the Battle School kids are given anything you could confuse for a defining characteristic, short of "this one's short" and "that one's got girl parts."  I was truly depressed at the treatment of Bean, a character who was cool in Ender's Game and then transitioned into an engaging hero with a fascinating identity crisis in the Ender's Shadow books.  All I wanted was a hint at Bean's true awesomeness, but instead I got a generic stand-in with about six lines of dialogue and none of Bean's trademark scrappy toughness.  I'll give them points for casting a diverse collection of child actors who actually look to represent the many countries of the world, but I have to take those points back for not using them in any kind of interesting way.  The only exception to this is Moises Arias, who's a dramatic standout as Ender's cruel commander Bonzo Madrid.  Then again, anyone who's seen Arias in Kings Of Summer won't be surprised that he shines here as well.  On the bright side, Harrison Ford actually showed up for this one.  He's awake and alert and actually seems to give a shit about the movie going on around him.  So that's nice.

There is one distinct element from the book that is almost completely whitewashed out of the film, and in a way it's both the most and the least surprising.  Along with the aforementioned shower fight, there's a scene early on in which Ender is forced to fight off a group of terrestrial classroom attackers lead by bully Stilson.  In both fights, Ender defeats his attackers thoroughly in order to ensure that there ain't gonna be no rematch.  In fact, (spoilers for the book) it's later revealed that Ender unknowingly killed both of his young tormentors.  Ender's penchant for utterly (and unwittingly) destroying his enemies is a vital component of his character.  There's no malice in Ender's actions, simply a utilitarian need to survive.  But that doesn't make his actions any less shocking, and the fact that he's recruited to lead the fleet precisely because of this dissociative killer instinct makes the whole enterprise all the more appalling.  But in the film, Stilson and Bonzo definitely survive.  Granted Stilson's gonna have a nasty scar on his face and Bonzo is probably a vegetable, but there's no arguing that they're still alive and I don't see what purpose that serves other than to soften Ender.  But softening him or any of the other kids for that matter flies in the face of what makes him such a compelling character.  Presumably Summit isn't comfortable with child-on-child murder, but considering the overwhelming success of The Hunger Games, a franchise that's built on a foundation of adolescent massacre, such a gunshy mentality seems almost prudish.

If my criticism seems harsh, it's only because I care.  The movie is fine, the kind of thing I'll happily watch on TV in eight months while writing emails or folding laundry.  In truth, this is probably an "ignorance is bliss" situation, where I'd probably have had a lot more fun with it if this was my first introduction to the character.  But as a big fan of the book, this interpretation really lacked heart and left me feeling cold.  Yeah, it's cool to see the Buggers and the Battle Room and all that stuff, but if that's all there is then who cares?  I can see that kind of stuff in any sci-fi movie.  There's nothing under the surface to really keep me invested in the story, like a fried chicken drumstick that's all extra-crispy shell but with no actual meat on the bone.

As I walked out of the theater, I realized that I didn't actually want to see and Ender's Game movie.  What I really wanted was a Game Of Thrones-style series.  I would happily spend an entire 12 episode season (maybe even two) watching Ender make his way through Battle School, followed by another season spent at Command School under the tutelage of Mazer Rackham.  Even a short run series would give the story just a little bit more breathing room and allow the characters to retain the complexities that made them so interesting on the page.  And even if you burned through the events of the first novel inside of two or three seasons, it'd be easy to transition into the Shadow series that takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Formic War.  Yeah, you'd end up losing the title character, but the military/political bent of that series would make for much better TV than the anthropological/sociological focus of the Speaker Of The Dead stuff, and that's coming from someone who likes those books more than most.  Either way, audiences would get the chance to properly experience the multi-faceted Enderverse in a way that simply doesn't feel possible (or at least likely) on the big screen.

Game Of Thrones has proven the marketability of prestige longform fantasy while Walking Dead and American Horror Story have done the same with horror.  Hard sci-fi is the next logical frontier for premium cable television.  It's a shame that Ender's Game won't be that series.



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Title: Ender's Game
Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Moises Arias
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical IMAX 2D - Jordan's Reading