Monday, 4 November 2013

Ender's Game (2013)

I have many gay (and gay-affirming) friends, some of whom have vowed to boycott Ender’s Game. I’d like to say that as a film critic and student of the arts, I believe in the death of the author, that a work of art needs to stand on its own merits, that all artists are mad, bad, and dangerous to know anyway and if we began with Orson Scott Card, we’d end with a long list with everyone else on it. I don’t apologise for watching Ender’s Game and I’d recommend people watch it.

Long thought to be impossible to adapt into a film, Ender’s Game is a classic science fiction novel that has established or popularised tropes that are indispensable in the genre. Ender Wiggins is a child soldier whose sheer genius means the Earth military will not hesitate to manipulate and mould him (and other youthful candidates) in a hellish, ultra-competitive environment into a Supreme Commander for a Final Space War. The artistic merit of the novel lies in how well it obscures, via narrative tricks and the generic hero’s journey structure, the question of whether Ender Wiggins is an innocent or a monster, a Military Jesus or a Little Eichmann.

The ‘impossibility’ of filming Ender’s Game lies on 2 fronts. The military boot camp of the novel consists of fanciful war training via virtual reality video games and zero gravity tag/paintball. The novel’s conceit—that someone can end up committing the most heinous war crime while being morally exonerated and still hold his innocence—represents a filmic storytelling challenge, considering that the novel employs narrative tricks that do not translate to a visual medium.

We should be thankful that in the 2010s, CGI has become cheap and ubiquitous enough that the technological challenge in bringing to life Space Quidditch and having kids play video games on IMAX screens using gestures alone is child’s play. Yet CGI being too cheap and ubiquitous represents a challenge that this film doesn't quite surmount: how to ensure characters don't look like they’re playing really conventional video games that would be recognisable to anyone in the 2010s. This very straightforward approach is also chosen to deal with the storytelling challenge—now, the guys in the military suits serve as Exposition Central, telling us what they’re up to and exposing (almost) all the narrative tricks that the novel hid so well.

The result is probably a most serviceable and accessible adaptation of a classic high concept science fiction/fantasy novel, though one that may be too straightforward and conventional to be a classic science fiction film. That’s a pity because Ender’s Game is that seminal. Genius child soldiers employed as the main troops in a war? Ender’s Game predates Gundam, but the Gundam franchise (and also The Hunger Games, for instance) have dealt with the traumas of child soldiers and their moral culpability in a more honest fashion since then. We’ll only note that Asa Butterfield’s Ender and the adult cast seem to take his cues from Gundam’s emotionally damaged and borderline psychotic child heroes who are aware of their monstrosity, while his supporting kiddie crew at space boot camp seem to be playing at kids playing video games.

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