Tuesday, December 03, 2013

My Thoughts About Ender's Game: How Much Thought Went Into It?

I really would have liked a second opportunity to watch Ender's Game before writing about it. In all honesty, I can't consider this a review. I'm of mixed mind on a lot of things, which is why even this took so long to write. That, and the fact that November kept my nose to the grindstone, as it were.

What is Ender's Game, then? Well, for one, it's a film that a lot of people were really interested in seeing. I imagine many schoolchildren were first introduced to Science Fiction by Orson Scott Card. Now, years later for me and decades later for this story, it's on film. Ender's Game was a very cerebral novel, largely taking place in Ender's head, gauging his reactions as he transformed from a boy with potential to a leader with no choice to do anything but.

Writer/Director Gavin Hood's biggest project prior to this was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film that, to put it lightly, was not well received. How did this influence his approach to Ender's Game? Well, it seems that Hood was inspired to transform Ender's Game into...a music video.

No, this isn't a movie in the manner of Moonwalker or Heavy Metal. It wears the facade of a regular movie. But it was written like the skit segments of a music video. It had the same feeling of compression, the same depth of plot and character, as a music video. It had the same strange, semi-symbolic-but-mostly-just-surreal imagery as a music video. And it had just the sort of long, drawn-out sequences of walking down a corridor as strange things change for no reason that made me expect David Bowie to step on screen and start twirling his balls...ball. Whatever.

It is clear that Gavin Hood understood a lot of the plot elements that made Ender's Game work. It is just as clear that he either didn't understand why they worked, or he didn't understand how to adapt it into a cohesive movie that still worked. Instead, we get a jumble of plot points thrown at us like a game of plot-point dodgeball, with all of the time that made them work skipped over. We get lingering scenes of the highest paid actor in Hollywood earning his paycheck by talking about what Ender should be doing, which results in his entire schooling seeming to take less than a week, rather than the years of sweat and focus that honed the story in the novel. In Card's original, everything went by quickly, but it slowed down enough to make a logical progression. Ender learned by observing. In Gavin Hood's Ender's Game, Ender learns by simply being a genius. Every tactic that he uses, he knows without seeing anything to allow him to learn. This adds to the fact that he is impetuous, blunt and unable to take a hint.

There are things, however, that make me wonder how much of this is really Hood's fault, and how much of it is the result of attempting to make a story like this in the Hollywood atmosphere of flash and money. I already mentioned one rather obvious example. Here's another.

In Ender's Game, there is one female character of note. I'm not talking about Valentine; she's not a character. She's almost a character, and I would say that by the time Speaker for the Dead comes around, she is one, but here, she largely exists as a motivator for Ender. No, I am speaking about Petra Arkanian, the girl who shows Ender the ins and outs of Battle School (that's not meant as a euphamism, and I'll explain why not in a moment) and, later, becomes the lieutenant that Ender leans on so much that she is the first to have a nervous breakdown.

As for the point that I said I would explain, one point that is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating about Ender's Game is the fact that the characters are just young enough to make a sexual relationship all but impossible. Sure, in the right environment, romance and physical love can happen between pre-teens, but when the idea isn't presented, it's not very likely. Particularly in a distraction-rich environment like Battle School. This helps to tone down the potentially incestuous undertones of the story, as well as preventing Petra from growing into a love interest, as much as readers interested in giving the characters a happy ending (or even a respite from Battle School) might wish her to. Still, this allowed Petra to be just “one of the boys”, if one of the smartest and funniest among them, without her sex being used as a means to judge her.

All of which is completely antithetical to the mainstream film-making mentality. Ten and twelve year olds aren't used for a role of this complexity. And films like this don't happen without some sort of love interest. So Petra's role is expanded. She's added in to extra scenes, and has less of her scenes cut than anybody else in the story. In fact, she is the only member of Ender's team that makes sense to share a bond with him in the context of the story; the only one that we really see share any hardships with him, other than his sister. She's then given awkward hand-holding scenes and alone time with him, just enough for the trailers to show a love interest without explicitly denying everything that she was in the original story. The latter issue is resolved when, instead of being a trusted commander that Ender learns too late not to use as a crutch, she becomes an object to be protected. Rather than controlling large swaths of the battlefield, the only woman in the main cast becomes someone who must sit back and let the men protect her until it is time for her to hit a button.

The visuals are where the budget of this film was really placed and, while they don't really fit with the story that needs to be told, they are impressive. While it's impossible to forget that you are watching a trailer, or a music video, or both at times, it's still hard to tear your eyes from the screen. Ender's Game was made for IMAX screens, most likely a way to justify making a Sci-Fi film as different from the standard Hero's Journey model as Ender's Game is.

Ultimately, I need to watch this movie again when it comes out on Netflix. I have a lot of complaints, but the end result was still mostly entertaining to watch. There are a few key scenes that I need to look for, and some other things that I need to look at, before I can make a final decision about this movie. As the very least, it is a fair companion to the book. I could see clips of this movie being played while summarizing the book, or even an edited version being used as a visual novel. No matter what the case, though, it's a far cry from the strength of the original story.


ShadowFalcon said...

I've heard such mixed thing about this...hmmm I might skip it because I doubt it will live up to my imagination.

Zarathustra said...

You forgot to mention... In the book, Ender is 6 years old when he gets taken away, and send to school....not the teenager we see in this movie. The movie didn't measure up to the book... but I'll still buy the DVD for the special effects...