Silver Screen: Ender’s Game ***
Ah, the moral quandary of Ender’s Game. Not the moral quandary of the plot, which questions the validity of preemptory warfare and ponders the disjunction between duty and a greater moral imperative. I’m talking about the moral quandary of actually seeing Ender’s Game.
The film, adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, is based on a 1985 young-adult novel by Orson Scott Card, a prolific writer and equally prolific homophobe. Card is an antigay wingnut who not only preaches intolerance, but vows to spend his money in support of his hateful views. Gay-rights groups have called for a boycott of the movie, and the protest has taken root on social media.
And thus the question: Are people who see the movie anyway douchebags?
Certainly the case could be made that the success of the movie could directly correlate into more money for Card, and thus fuel his misbegotten crusade. And as sacrifices go, skipping one sci-fi blockbuster in a year chock full of them is a minor one indeed.
On the other hand: Do the same people who would avoid Ender’s Game boycott movies by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski? What about albums by Chris Brown, Michael Jackson, or Ted Nugent? Do they watch football games featuring Ben Roethlisberger or Michael Vick, or on Fox Sports? How much of an effort do they make to ensure that all the entertainment their eyes pass over and their wallets support is fair-trade, cruelty free, and beneficial to the social causes of their choosing? And as such, can we hold people who want to see Ender’s Game to a standard we likely do not maintain?
It’s a heady, morally murky conundrum, one without a great solution. Maybe if you do see Ender’s Game, hold hands with another dude the whole time in protest.
What’s even more problematic is that the work itself, viewed in isolation, seems downright progressive. Ender’s Game is a sci-fi antiwar tale about Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), the most promising young recruit in an increasingly automated army that finds children are best suited to the videogame-like controls of the war machinery. Ender is too young to remember it personally, but his life has been shaped by an alien invasion decades prior by the Formics, ant-like creatures that came to colonize the planet. Thanks to the legendary heroics of one pilot, the invasion was staved off, but the steely Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes the creatures are preparing a second, much larger assault. He has precious little time to train Ender, the highest-testing recruit in history, to lead the human forces into battle. The film centers around Ender’s training on a space station where he plays a series of wargames and simulations with fellow recruits Petra (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), Bean (Aramis Knight), and others.
Ender’s Game, penned way back in the middle of the Reagan era, is particularly prescient in its predictions about drone warfare and the rise of gamer culture. The story seems almost crassly pitched to the modern-day gamer, an increasingly populated— and lucrative— demographic that barely existed when Card wrote the novel in Atari-era 1985. In its worst moments, watching Ender’s Game is a little bit like watching your friend play videogames; in fact, a few necessary but dull sequences are exactly that.
The wargames training exercises in zero gravity are exciting and nicely rendered, and the intricate final war simulation is thrilling. The movie maintains the book’s gut-wrenching twist, which retroactively reshapes the entire story and conjures up the moral dilemma the story actually intended.
In the attempt to condense so much story into two hours, the characters get lost, or become plot points. Ender is purposely distant and inscrutable, and the lanky beanpole Butterfield does a nice job of conveying both his significant potential and the ways in which his destiny overwhelms him. Steinfeld brings the lone touch of humanity to a movie that is otherwise chilly and sterile. Ford and his counterpart (Viola Davis) mostly spout exposition and necessarily vague concerns as they circle around their true purpose without ever stating it. Ben Kingsley shows up late and brings gravitas, but not much emotional resonance.
Maybe that settles the debate before it starts. Regardless of whether or not you feel morally obliged to avoid Ender’s Game, to miss it isn’t to miss all that much.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.