A ‘Full Metal Jacket for the Hunger Games crowd’, Ender’s Game carries a sinister message, says MacDara Conroy Can artists be separated from the art they create? People who listen to Burzum or watch Roman Polanski’s films will have their arguments, but even some of them might balk at the reputation that precedes Orson Scott Card, erstwhile toast of the sci-fi world whose body of work has been tarnished by his vocal opposition to homosexuality (though he is a devout Mormon – descended from Brigham Young, in fact – so that should have come as no surprise).
Following a recent boycott of DC Comics over plans for an OSC-penned Superman series, here comes more trouble brewing with the screen adaptation of his best-known work. The studios responsible (including SFX house Digital Domain), the director (Tsotsi’s Gavin Hood) and cast (topped by the estimable Harrison Ford) all face a backlash of Comic-Con-sized proportions, though you might be comforted to know that Ender’s Game, at least in its filmic incarnation, bears no obvious trace of its creator’s latter-day homophobic sympathies. However, what the film does portray is arguably as sinister.
Ender’s Game is set in a future (de facto American) world 50 years after the planet barely survives an invasion by the dreaded Formics, giant ant-like alien creatures not unlike the beetle-esque ‘bugs’ of Starship Troopers. We glean little of this future society other than that its military is immensely powerful, and its citizens are blanketed with propaganda to maintain a constant state of fear (sound familiar?). It’s also a world where bright children who show exceptional strategic potential are sought out by the military and groomed for leadership in the mould of revered war hero Mazer Rackham, whose sacrifice apparently saved the world from alien domination.
Asa Butterfield, last seen in Scorcese’s Oscar-bait Hugo, plays the eponymous Ender, the last of three siblings to enrol in the ‘Battle School’ programme, following his hot-head older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and empathetic sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Ender possesses his sister’s heart, but also his brother’s psychopathic streak, seen early on when he beats a would-be bully to a bloody mess – an incident that’s only nominally criticised by authority figures Major Anderson (Viola Davis) and Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), the latter ultimately defending Ender’s violence as a virtue: squash your enemies before they get a chance to squash you later. Quite.
From there on the story proceeds as a boys’ own adventure, like a Full Metal Jacket for the Hunger Games crowd, with Ender blasting off into orbit and adjusting to the space station Battle School’s boot-camp life; proving himself to instructors and cadets alike via the laser tag games in the glass-and-steel zero-g ‘battle room’; facing up to the Napoleonic, domineering Bonzo (The Kings of Summer‘s Moises Arias); kindling a chaste sort of romance with fellow recruit Petra (True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld); and becoming vaguely aware that he’s being manipulated for clandestine purposes.
The third act brings an abrupt change in tone, as Ender and his best buddies are whisked across the galaxy to a military base close to the Formics’ home world, the staging post for a major assault on the enemy. Here, Ender is trained for his final strategy exam by a secret operative (Butterfield’s Hugo co-star Ben Kingsley, yet again in a non-white role – this time a supposed Kiwi of Maori descent whose accent seems closer to Leo DiCaprio’s ropey attempt at Afrikaans in Blood Diamond) and as the make-or-break battle simulation looms, the young prodigy finally learns that the ‘good guys’ are not quite what they seem.
That much should be blindingly obvious, but Ender’s Game takes far too long to get to its supposed point: that war is only defendable at all if it’s conducted the ‘right’ way, that it matters as much how we fight as it does that the good guys win. The shockingly similar Starship Troopers credits its audience with understanding as much from the outset (it’s at the heart of its biting satire) but Ender’s Game treats that outcome as a surprise amid its gung-ho glorification of power. All the while, the film luxuriates in the glamorous imagery of the future – and admittedly it is gorgeous to look at, especially the battle room scenes, which are probably breathtaking in the 3D version – but it’s just window dressing for a plot that strives to portray galactic war as sexy as a video game, and barely pays lip service to the notion that might doesn’t equal right. It’s also burrowed quite far up its own arse in its self-seriousness, like the ‘young adult’ adaptations it’s surely aping.
On a darker note, and final ‘message’ aside, the film consistently endorses the notion that it’s acceptable, indeed necessary to pre-empt an opponent’s expected attack with massively lethal force. The very same tactics employed by the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, to disastrous effect. The same thinking that governed the US’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. And it goes all but unchallenged here; Viola Davis’ sensitive Major Anderson is the lone voice of dissent among the top brass, and even she is marginalised as a wishy-washy counsellor who doesn’t hang with the important men who make the big decisions.
In all fairness, Ender’s Game isn’t made for the likes of me. It’s for the tweenage market, for kids who play violent video games, are inured to clunky dialogue and lifeless performances, and who are clearly expected to be bamboozled by the film’s telegraphed plot twists. Maybe they’ll be taken in by its style, and flattered by its intimations towards big ideas and imitation of meaningfulness (a charge that can be levelled at another 2013 sci-fi blockbuster from a South African director, Neill Blomkamp’s superficial Elysium). But that isn’t crediting the youth of today with much intelligence, is it?