Monday, November 4, 2013

Ender's Game: Heart but no smarts

I was interrupted by a demon with red eyes and a doctor princess while I was buying my tickets online to see Ender's Game. It was Halloween, a Thursday, and I accidentally bought 10:00 tickets for that night instead of Friday. What ever happened to midnight premieres? So after dishing out some Crunch bars (which had been segregated from the Butterfingers and the Baby Ruths to give away first so that any leftovers we'd have would be the good stuff) and touching up my lightning-bolt scar, I dragged The Hubz out to the 'burbz to go see a movie I've been waiting fifteen years for.

The Nerds of a Feather nerds have all weighed in on Orson-Scott-Card-is-a-douchebag-gate. I have come to terms that my favorite author is someone I would not want to meet at a dinner party, lest we come to blows. But I was PSYCHED for the movie, though in the minority among friends.

Here's an exchange I had with a friend about his expectations of Ender's Game the movie:
Molly: "We're about to see Ender's Game! Had a lot of coffee. Sleep when I'm dead."
Joseph: "Cool! I bet that movie sucks horse balls." 
Molly: "Yeah, maybe. But it's still gonna be awesome." 
Joseph: "I'd rather see a Nick Cage movie than watch Harrison Ford fumble into old age with the crap he's been in. [...] If they can't even restrain themselves for the two ducking [sic, autocorrect] seconds it takes to write a good tag line, then how the fuck is the rest of the movie supposed to be any good? Gavin Hood probably didn't even read the book." 
Then, six seconds later: "I'm sure it'll be great. Have fun!" 
All pretty valid concerns. The tag line on some of the posters? Spoiler alert: "This is not a game."

I went to see Ender's Game. It was good enough.

I'll start by defending Harrison Ford, though I shared the ageist fear his performance would be subpar. The character Colonel Hyrum Graff was expanded from a shadowy puppeteer to an overbearing school principal, a shift I expected moving to the big screen. The only awfulness I found in Ford's work stemmed directly from the exposition-heavy writing he had to work with, though at times he came across as too compassionate, even as he manipulated the odds against Ender.

Asa Butterfield, the kid who plays Ender, was great. Just freaking great. The scene immediately following the final battle was sufficiently heartbreaking. Butterfield spat the line "I will carry the shame of this genocide forever" with such conviction that I sobbed a little with him, thank god.

The biggest flaw I felt in the movie adaptation is that the battle school cadets didn't come off as smart. They are all really superbrilliant smart, eerily so, and this is why they are the ones that can defeat the buggers, not just because kids are good at video games. Graff's bigger role deemphasized the isolation and complicated politics that Ender had to deal with in battle school - not just bullying, but really devious and clever abuse. Butterfield is the only actor that got a chance to show the gears turning behind his decisions, and I would have liked for it to feel less like scrappy misfits winning the neighborhood a la The Sandlot and more like the asskickery that happens on every single episode of The West Wing. Battle school recruits aren't savant gamers; they're elite tacticians.

The movie left out pretty much all the thinkier parts of the book - the entire subplot of Peter/Locke and Valentine/Demosthenes manipulating the politics on Earth, the complex strategies in the battle room, and the denser moral debate on xenophobia. For the most part, it was ok to me that the movie was a heavy-handed spectacle, because that's how Ender's Game the book fits into the rest of the Enderverse: it's a prequel, a flashy podracery bit of awesome that appeals to our baser, pubescent tastes of violence and space war. The battle room scenes were pretty awesome (but, like, all in slow-mo?) - but it's just the start of the conversation.

My hope is that people see the movie and read not just Ender's Game, but Speaker for the Dead too, where the real meat of the philosophical discourse happens: Is morality based in action or intention? I'll spare you a rant, but I think it's a pretty important conversation for our time. Here's a thought-provoking essay to get you started: Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality.

Anyway, the movie was fine. It was an ok adaptation and better than I thought it would be. What do you think?

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