Orson Scott Card Archive

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Movie Review: Ender’s Game

I am hard pressed to think of a recent movie with as much baggage as Ender’s Game. The novel from which this movie is adapted is as academically reviled as it is critically acclaimed. In recent years, Orson Scott Card has become infamous for his ultra-conservative views on Obama, climate change, and gay marriage. The film’s theatrical release faced protests, boycotts, and renewed discussions on if/how a critical audience should separate art from the artist. I suppose the classy thing for me to is ignore those conceptual burdens and evaluate the movie on its own merits.

Here is the setup. At some point in the near future, a race of extraterrestrial insects invade the Earth. Humanity manages to fend off the first Bugger Formic invasion, but in doing so the leaders of the world cultivate a considerable paranoia about the bugs coming back to finish the job. Even after half a century, Earth seems to be living amid a constant war economy. Part of this protracted psychological siege sees the International Fleet, a supranational military organization charged with defending mother Terra, scour the globe for child soldiers with the gift to be starfighters with the reflexes, and data processing abilities to coordinate a final and decisive battle against the Formics. Sound complicated? It can be at times given the movie’s tendency to alternate between being poorly explained and hideously over-explained. Nothing says narrative cohesion like having a teenager offer expository voice-overs just to make sure the audience picked up on the subtext of the previous scene. Yet for a movie that clocks in at less than two hours, the entirety of the plot feels rushed and under-developed, as if it were trying to cram a decidedly political, four hundred page novel, into a kid-friendly science fiction film.

I know, I promised to treat this movie as its own cultural entity, but it’s worth mentioning that I doubt I would have understood half of what the movie was trying to do if I hadn’t already read the novel.

The aforementioned issue raises one of the more confounding questions about this movie – perhaps even more confounding than the ending which, again, if you haven’t read the book won’t make any sense. Who is the target audience? Given the lazy way Ender’s Game treats child soldiers as a fait accompli, I can’t see it as a morality play for adults. With bullying, and tactical applications of bullying, as a recurring theme throughout the movie, not to mention the clumsy attempt to frame young Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) and his battle school chum Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld) as a little more than ‘just friends’, I suspect writer/director Gavin Hood was truly aiming for a younger demographic.

In terms of performance, there’s a distinct lack of emotion emanating from the cast as a whole. Certainly Ford, Davis, and Kingsley play their parts for all they are worth, but they are largely bit players amid an ensemble of young actors. Either through shortcomings in the script or a simple inability to act,  most of the younger cohort come up well short of the emotional specturm one would expect from child soldiers. Only Moises Arias as Bonzo Madrid, the cruel commander of Salamander Army, brings the sort of volatility one would expect to see of a child given real power. This paucity of feeling even extends to Asa Butterfield as Ender. Again, I’ll lay most of my blame at the door of Gavin Hood. An actor can only do so much to save a character when the screenplay is an abysmal adaptation of the source material. Ender is all too often of a neutral disposition, save for at the very beginning and the very end. Even at the end, what should be the story’s highest point of tension, Butterfield is given neither the necessary screen time or dialogue to sell me on the requisite guilt that would come with enacting a genocide.

Perhaps the only point in favour of this movie is the way it gives the International Fleet an international screen presence. There are at least as many people of colour in speaking roles as there are white people. Perhaps it’s not a big deal, but we live in a world where Hollywood put serious consideration into an all white, live-action version of Akira set in New York. I’ll take my diversity wins where I can get them.

Without using the novel as a yardstick to show what this movie gets wrong, there isn’t a lot more to say about Ender’s Game. The screenplay presumes little sophistication or intelligence on the part of the viewer. Everything looks pretty enough, though I suspect Gravity ruined me on really appreciating any of Ender’s Game’s Battle Room scenes. More importantly, the screenplay makes no meaningful attempt at engaging with the IF’s use of child soldiers or humanity invoking the Bush Doctrine in their war with the Formics. As a result, Ender’s Game comes off as a shallow affair that is primarily concerned with exploring standing one’s ground against a bully as a leitmotif for managing an alien invasion. Forgive me, but that’s a little dumb.

In the end, Ender’s Game is utterly bereft of subtlety, nuance, or the moral ambiguity that – for good or bad – made the novel (in)famous.

Stray Thought: A number of elements of Steve Jablonski’s soundtrack seem lifted from Ramin Djawadi’s tune from the opening credits of Game of Thrones.

Enders Game

Written and Directed by Gavin Hood

Starring: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, and Hailee Steinfeld


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Podcast Episode 29: The Kaiju-sized Military SF Episode

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and K.W. Ramsey

It took a couple weeks of planning and schedule jockeying, but K.W. Ramsey and I were finally able to sit down to record an extended length podcast on military science fiction.

What could be finer than two white guys talking about the quintessential post-colonial white guy sub-genre? Am I right?

Seriously though, we begin the discussion by drawing upon Damien Walter’s Guardian piece on overly simplistic military science fiction. From there we jump back and forth between military SF on film and in literature. As with most ninety minute discussions, nothing gets resolved, but I think we come up with a few decent ideas on how military SF can evolve to reflect a slightly less antiquated world view.

Make sure to check out Mr. Ramsey’s blog at The Left Hand of Dorkness and follow him on twitter @kwramsey

Topics under discussion include,

- The ideology of the Federation and Starfleet’s role therein; also that time David Nickle trolled us on facebook about Cumberbatch’s character in STiD

- David Weber’s love affair with the 19th century and why military SF at large needs to get past the British Empire

- John Scalzi as the wild card of military SF – also included there is the story of the first time I met Scalzi and went from zero to fanboy in eight seconds.

- Mr. Ramsey’s very compelling theory on why I think Ender’s Game is a crap novel

- A discussion on how to responsibly consume art when the artist is a horrible person

- Robert Heinlein, kooky but honest

- How Pacific Rim does military SF in a slightly different sort of way

- Class and education as factors in crafting protagonists in military SF

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


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Orson Scott Card Demands Tolerance

Orson Scott Card wants people to be tolerant toward him and Ender’s Game? Allow me to put on my best Kelsey Grammer as Side Show Bob voice when I say, “Bwhaaa haaa haaa haaa haa haaa.”

Oh wait, he’s being serious. Are you kidding me? Boycotting a movie is somehow an act of intolerance? I must be working from an older edition of the Newspeak dictionary.

The fact of the matter is that I plan on reviewing the crap out of Ender’s Game. Things that I would let slide in any other movie, I’m going to shine a spotlight on in this picture. Not since Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer have my expectations for a Hollywood production been so high.

This is not simply because I utterly dislike Card as person, despite respecting his capabilities as an artist, but because I – wait for it – don’t think that Ender’s Game is a particularly effective novel. Card makes the critical mistake of writing a protagonist who is smarter than himself. From that flaw do all of the novel’s other shortcomings flow. And if John Carter taught me anything it’s that bad novels do not get better when they make a transition to film. If anything, the things that made the book tedious and tiresome in the first place become all the more obvious.

So fear not, Mr. Card, I fully plan on tolerating your movie despite the fact that your status in the science fiction community provides you with an audience for espousing hateful nonsense where otherwise you’d just be some kook with a blog. I’ll tolerate the film out of respect for the fact that before I knew what a douche you are, I used to really respect you as a writer. The first SF novel I ever recommended to my partner (don’t worry, she’s a woman, I just don’t buy into the institution of marriage when her family isn’t giving my family a dowry or noble title) was Speaker for the Dead.

What I don’t plan on being is being nice to your movie. I’ll still be objective, in a fashion befitting a 19th century French art critic, mind you, but I don’t think that’s what you really want, is it, Mr. Card? I suspect you want deference and fawning approbation of your opus. And I’m afraid that’s just not going to happen from me or any other self-respecting critic. What kudos you manage to get will likely come begrudgingly, and only with much reservation.

That said, I’m sure Ender’s Game will end up making two hundred million dollars and will be hailed as a sci-fi tour de force. So on that note, I’m going to throw it to my buddy Jay Sherman, who will say what we are all thinking.

 


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Ender’s Emotional Game

Were a person to ask one hundred science fiction writers and readers if they think Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is an important novel, I imagine most would say yes. Ask that same group if they enjoy Ender’s Game more than its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, and I expect the room would polarize.

My last re-read of Card’s seminal treatise on child soldiers and interstellar war was in 2005. In ways that have nothing to do with space warfare, I found the novel surprisingly prescient. In 1985 Card successfully predicted the rise of independent publication through the internet as a means of effectively spreading a message; though reality offers few examples of blogs as successful and influential as Locke’s and Demosthenes’.

But if there’s a first principle from which my criticism of the novel emerges, it is Card’s creation of Ender as infallible – arguably this is what puts me in the Speaker for the Dead side of the Ender v. Speaker debate. Ender isn’t simply smarter than his colleagues, he’s also smarter than the readers. Indeed, he’s likely smarter than Orson Scott Card, himself. If this reality weren’t enough to alienate readers, Ender is also a fully mobilized child solider in a semi-fascist future. Thus Ender’s empathy and innocence become his go-to redemptive qualities. If nothing else, images of Ender crying in his bunk produced a reasonably palatable way for Card to hand wave his way around Ender’s various atrocities and war crimes. For everything else Card does in the novel, he is constantly imposing heavily on a reader’s sense of pathos.

This imposition is so overt that it even becomes a talking point within certain reviews of the book.

“Anyone who reads about Ender’s trials – even before he enters the Battle School – and doesn’t feel for him must have a heart of stone.” – Catherine Russell, Functional Nerds

“…it’s the character study of a young boy whose childhood is being denied him by those who are in fact putting on a show of catering to it.” – Thomas M. Wagner, SFReviews.net

“…Ender is brave, determined, but whether he is kind or mean changes as he progresses through Battle School.” – The Guardian

Regardless of if a reader enjoys the emotional milieu of Ender’s Game, the story falls apart without it. Bearing this point in mind, let’s turn to the newly released blub on the upcoming Ender’s Game movie.

“In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy, but strategically brilliant boy is pulled out of his school to join the elite.

Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham, himself, to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.” – Via Collider

Granted it’s never wise to draw too extensively from two paragraphs of promotional text, but this doesn’t sound like a story which hinges upon the relative innocence of a child solider. In fact, it sounds more like an action movie intent on revisiting Starship Troopers but with a significantly diminished camp value.

Consider that in 1985, New York Times critic Gerald Jonas had this to say about Ender’s Game in his review of the book:

I am aware that this sounds like the synopsis of a grade Z, made-for-television, science-fiction-rip-off movie. But Mr. Card has shaped this unpromising material into an affecting novel full of surprises that seem inevitable once they are explained. The key, of course, is Ender Wiggin himself…Alternately likable and insufferable, he is a convincing little Napoleon in short pants.” – New York Times

Cloying as it can be at times, Ender’s relationship with his sister, as well as his friends in the Battle School, is the glue that holds the narrative together. Granted, Jack’s and Valentine’s reflections on philosophy/bloggings provide an intellectual framework to justify the novel’s slant on human economies during war time. However, a skilled editorial surgeon could remove those sections of the novel without too much detriment to the overall story arc. But without Ender’s frequent introspection and at times maudlin self-reflection, he’s nothing more than an indoctrinated butcher.

Building this essential humanity into a film is going to be a tough sell. Ender’s deepest moments of reflection emerge out of solitude. Despite loading the cast with the likes of Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley, there’s no real way to lend their acting chops to Asa Butterfield without radically restructuring the narrative.

Returning again to the concept of first principles, there is a clear reason why a cinematic adaptation of Ender’s Game will have taken twenty-eight years, assuming it gets released on time: the novel is self-reflective, heavy on the exposition, and a delicate balance of pathos mixed with invasive politics of state designed child soldiers. Turning all of the above into a two hour movie is a colossal challenge. And if the advertising copy is to be believed, the film is already missing a significant element in the story’s chemical formula.


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Podcast #4 Book Review/Shaftoe’s Rant: Ender’s Game

Under Review: Ender’s Game

Featuring the voice of Adam Shaftoe.

Contains spoilers and swears.

PS: This is post #50 so everybody should really pay attention to it…please.  I’m so desperate for approbation.