The How of Warfare: Ender’s Game

5 Nov

I know many folks who have reservations about seeing or supporting Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Card’s personal beliefs are notorious, and I can understand why someone would want to avoid condoning or enabling his prejudices. That kind of boycott is not for me, though. So tonight I did go see the film. Warning! The following is full of spoilers. If you don’t know anything about the book or haven’t see the film, you may want to stop reading.

Ender’s Game tells the story of a young boy who is chosen as the commander of an army to strike back against an alien race that has attacked Earth. The boy, Ender, believes he is training for command and that the battles he fights are simulations. He is mistaken. He has  taken control of the real fleet virtually. When he destroys his enemy and learns the truth of his participation in the genocide of another sentient species, he is furious and devastated. (Other books in the series take up what happen next and, from a religious studies standpoint, are way more interesting.)

The film is a mixed bag. The writer and director, Gavin Hood, tried to save much of the internal mechanics of the source material with a quote from the main character:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

Unfortunately, the implementation of this idea is shoddy at best. Its many facets fall away in the bright lights of explosions and CGI effects.

In some moments the acting is excellent and the emotional weight of the action is impressive. The climax of the battle and Ender’s realization did make my heart skip a few beats. (It could’ve been even better with better direction, however. The pacing was all over the place and especially off at the end.) I’ve read all of the books in the series, however. I knew what was coming and where it would lead later. I think that gave the moment additional value for me that other viewers might not have had if they were unfamiliar with the series.

At other times–especially in the early growing pains of Ender and his teammates–the youthful actors feel out of their depths. On the whole Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender, does an impressive job. His fury and resolve at the end of the film is convincing. His compatriots are never as convincing.

For me, the movie provoked an interesting question: When are films not products of the moments when they were created? This is an instance where nearly every review and commentary on the film sounded off on the same issues. For Ender’s Game I think there is so much of the present moment that I found it hard to concentrate on the exotic plot. That is, the film saturates itself so thoroughly in the politics of surveillance and drone warfare, that it is difficult not to see the film as an argument against the impersonalization of warfare. Ender’s squadron fights at no risk to themselves, yet the consequences of their strategies are very real. Men and women die. A species is exterminated. (Even the drone pilots become faceless with dark helmet visors that make them little more than mannequins.)

The anonymity of many elements of modern warfare such as drones or long-range missiles, makes it easier than ever for the authors of war to be separated from war’s causalities. In Ender’s Game I think we see both sides of the issue. I don’t agree that the film makes a strong case either way. We don’t know whether or not the aliens were truly preparing for another attack against Earth. While Harrison Ford is powerful as the counterpoint to Ender, his arguments lack the weight of clear evidence.

In this age of drone strikes, Ender’s Game emerges as a meditation on the how of warfare. Ender was recruited by a leader who believes that war is the means to end future wars. After being the instrument of that method, Ender will decide to embark on a different path. Reviews of the film have extensively discussed whether the film is anti or pro war. Was total annihilation right? Was it justified? Ender argues at the end that how we defeat our enemies matters. Reviewers took up this inquiry. I think that’s a useful product of this film’s reception.

This film will be read in the future against its sequels. Speaker for the Dead will determine, in large part, whether or not we can successfully read Ender’s Game as pro- or anti-war. I’ll bide my time for that moment.

Other reviews make some of these points and many others. I would encourage you to read mixed reviews from WiredSlate, or NPR. There’s also a very interesting interview with Harrison Ford at The Daily Beast. For a radically negative view (and there are plenty), you could try Cinephiled’s 1 star take-down. That reviewer wasn’t the only one thinking war, genocide, or boy-to-man journeys have been done better before.

That level of disappointment isn’t for me. I’m a generous audience. I forgive easily, forget quickly, and I’m always looking for an angle that makes a film more interesting. For me, at least, Ender’s Game has plenty for me to sink my teeth into. It’s not very successful at tackling any of the big issues it references–genocide, surveillance, automated warfare, war, or misogyny. But I didn’t expect it to be. I knew it was going to be mediocre. Science Fiction adaptations nearly always are. Usually they’re even worse. ((There’s the cynic in me!) For this to have preserved so much of the core of the story (and the set up the more interesting sequels) was plenty for to be satisfied while I munched my popcorn.

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