Monday, November 4, 2013

I Want Hollywood to Make More Movies Like This (Ender's Game)

First business first: yes, we changed the site banner. Why? Because we can. And also the font in the old one was starting to get on my nerves for some reason. 

Second, let's talk about Ender's Game.

As you probably know, the filmed adaptation of the beloved childhood-scarring novel came out this past weekend, to some pretty good reviews. The general consensus seems to be that if you loved the book, you'll at least enjoy the movie, and that if you haven't read the book, then you might be a little confused but it should be okay. Which seems to be borne up by the anecdotal evidence around me.

I'm going to try to spoil as little of the story as possible for once here, so bear with me if it's kind of hard. I'm not good at not spoiling things.

Anyway, starring Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggen, the story takes place on an Earth remade in the wake of a horrifying attack. Fifty years ago, the insectile alien species, the Formics, came to Earth to wipe us out and take our water. We were almost destroyed, but with the skill and bravery of one legendary pilot, Mazer Rackham, we survived and the Formics were destroyed.

Now, in the "present" of the story, the whole world waits with baited breath to see if the Formics will attack again. The whole world has unified with one goal, the protection of our species, and to that end, all children are trained in tactics and combat, with the hopes that one child will rise above the rest and lead our armies to victory if the time should arise.

So, yeah, this is a science fiction story about child soldiers. Did I forget to mention that? 

Ender is the third son of an elite family, whose older brother and sister (Valentine, played by Abigail Breslin) both washed out of the training program. Peter, his brother, was rejected for being too cruel and quick to use violence, and Valentine for being too compassionate. Ender, who was only born in order to increase the odds of a Wiggen becoming a commander, is their last hope. 

He's also a skinny, blank-faced know-it-all who fights bullies by ensuring that they will be utterly destroyed by his actions, and that he will never have to fight them again. He's perfect.

Or so Colonel Graff thinks, at least. Graff (Harrison Ford) runs the Battle School training program, and he selects Ender to join. Not just to join, though, but Graff has his eye on Ender from the very beginning. He thinks Ender can lead, and he's going to do anything, anything necessary to make sure that happens.

With the help of Major Anderson (Viola Davis), Graff commences to testing Ender in every way he can think of. From intentionally alienating him from the other recruits, to blocking his emails home, to giving him a manipulative mind game to play to gauge his emotional state, Ender's every action is scrutinized and studied to see if he really is the one they should have at their head. 

And the worst of it is, we don't really entirely know what they're grooming Ender for. Just that Major Anderson doesn't seem to think it's going to leave Ender very happy when it's over.

Despite the isolation of Battle School, however, Ender does manage to make some friends. There's Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), a few years ahead of him and an expert shot. Petra is the one who helps Ender learn how to fight in a zero gravity environment and how to use his small size to his advantage. There's also Bean (Aramis Knight), a street kid whose use of tactics is formidable, and whose companion book, Ender's Shadow, is arguably just as good as this one. But I digress.

So, yes, lots of battles and reversals of fortune and ups and downs as Ender goes through Battle School. There are several eye popping battles in the training room, a sort of zero gravity capture the flag, where Ender demonstrates that not only is he an able leader, he's also a ruthless one, willing and able to sacrifice his whole team for victory. It's hard to explain precisely what that means without giving away a bit too much of the plot or getting too in depth on how the games work, but trust me on this one. Ender's good at this, and also a little scary.

But the real test comes when one of Ender's rivals attacks him in the shower, and Ender, lashing out, causes him to break his neck. The rival is in a vegetative state, and a horrified Ender requests to leave the program. Graff can't have that.

Valentine is brought in then to speak some truth to her brother, and Ender is coerced back into the program. He goes to Command School, and, here is where we have to get a bit more vague because of spoilers, he learns how to defeat the enemy. Then he learns who his enemy really is, and that changes a lot.

The movie is very faithful to the book. I mean, very faithful. It's pretty much a page-by-page interpretation of the source material. I don't say that as a bad thing, either. The source material, the novel, is very interesting, philosophically engaging, and incredibly visual. Clearly sticking close to the source worked well for them.

What works less well is the eventual reveal and transition of the story. I don't want to go into detail here, but there was a necessary emotional confusion towards the end of the movie. In a book, it works perfectly well to have a sudden reveal at the very end, and then have the reader's emotions swing around wildly. In a movie, well, it's a little harder to work. But honestly, that's the only substantive critique I actually have of the work. It's a good movie. Solid, engrossing, and well worth the watch.

Also, and this truly shocked me, it's the rare case where the casting director actually made the story more diverse. That pretty much never happens, but here several characters whose race was unspecified are portrayed by characters of color: notably, Bean by Aramis Knight and Major Anderson by Viola Davis. So, you know, yay!

Also nice was how well the film centered the Ender/Petra and Ender/Valentine relationships. While they are both important in the book, it was nice to see that our male hero was deeply concerned with the well-being and opinion of the women around him. It's also of note because a huge part of Ender's characterization is his pseudo-androgyny. He's a perfect blend between his compassionate sister and his violent brother, and as such, does not present a clear and definable masculinity of his own. He's somewhere in between. His scenes with Petra do not have a particularly romantic feel, and his relation to the other characters in general is that of someone who is other in all senses of the word.

It's interesting, to say the very least.

All of this having been said, I know that there are some people still out there who will be mad at me for paying money to see this film in theaters, and therefore giving money to Orson Scott Card, who has made an enemy of the internet with his outspoken homophobia. And it's true. The guy's a jerk. Not just on this one issue, but, reportedly, about most things.

However.

I find many more reasons to support this film than to boycott it. For one thing, Card will be paid no matter what I do. He already has been. The book was optioned years ago (some reports say as many as twenty years ago), and whatever my actions, he has already been compensated for it. But more than that, I want to support this film with my money for very simple, selfish reasons: it's good. 

It's a good, clever, thought-provoking science fiction film with lots of characters of color, female characters given substantive roles, and a penetrating look at our culture as a whole. It's interesting and engaging and good. This is exactly the kind of movie that I want Hollywood to be making. It's like arguing that Pacific Rim was bad for feminism because Mako is the only substantive female character in the film. While it's true that I would have liked to see more women in the movie, that doesn't make Mako any less badass, and not supporting the film because of a perceived slight does not send the correct message to the studios.

All the studios will see is that their smart, diverse, interesting movie didn't do well at the box office. Trust me, studioheads are a lot more likely to blame that on the premise of the film, or the intellectual content, or the casting, than they are to pinpoint the political views of the writer of the original work.

None of this is to say that I think Orson Scott Card is a particularly nice person. It's all to say that I don't think that really matters. I want Hollywood to make more movies like Ender's Game, so I will go see this film and spend my money on it. It's that simple.



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