Big Bugs and Culture Wars
A few months ago I had a curious and somewhat exasperating experience on one of the world's premier social networking websites (you know – the one which had the thing about the thing). Someone who I used to know quite well made a rather grave announcement along the lines of 'For anyone planning to see Ender's Game – Orson Scott Card has announced he will donate some of his profits to anti-gay marriage lobby groups' (or words to that effect), the unspoken assumption being that no humane person could now possibly consider doing such a thing.
Well, I happily go and see movies by all the big studios (as you may have noticed) which means that some of my cash ends up in the profits of people like Rupert Murdoch, who no doubt have views with which I would take exception. Bearing this in mind I suggested to my friend he was being a bit naive and over-reacting by singling out Card for this sort of boycott (Ender's Game alone has seven other producers). I didn't really mind the days of wrangling which followed, just the fact that after having repeatedly criticised Orson Scott Card for refusing to respect the rights of others, my friend concluded by casually mentioning he was going to illegally download the movie anyway. Sigh. Is this what counts as the moral high ground nowadays?
I don't share Card's socially conservative personal beliefs, but I don't think that having such beliefs automatically makes one a homophobe, and I don't think that this necessarily makes anything he's associated with a valid target for picketing and criticism. Nevertheless, this seems to have been the case with the movie adaptation of Ender's Game, certainly earlier in the year, and this may be why the film's release feels to me to have a faint sense of lack of commitment. This is a big old lavish SF blockbuster, which could surely hold its head up amongst the typical crop of summer films, or the slightly-more-critically-respectable bunch showing up around Christmas every year. And yet it has been snuck out at the beginning of November, and at a time when it is likely going to get hammered by the latest Thor.
I find this a bit of a shame. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, this is the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a child prodigy attending military academy at some point in the future. To begin with we are in Backstory Voiceover Mode, as we learn how the world was devastated by an assault by insectoid aliens (in the book these are known as Buggers, but for fairly obvious reasons in the circumstances, the movie has opted to change this to Formics). The aliens were driven off, but the threat of another invasion continues to loom. As a result, the government of Earth is training its young people to lead battle fleets should hostilities resume.
Senior military figure Graff (Harrison Ford) identifies Ender as a tactical genius, and potentially the one great leader Earth's navy has been waiting for. So he gets shipped off to an orbital training facility, which is basically a very stern version of Hogwarts but with ray guns, where he is forced to participate in all manner of zero-G battle simulations and other training scenarios. But does Ender have it in him to do all that the high command require...?
Okay, so on one level it is a bit like Harry Potter in space – there are competing houses, various fraught relationships between the pupils, strict teachers, and so on – but I found it rather more reminiscent of something else. The incipient threat from alien arthropods, the authoritarian global culture, the militarisation of the young – very soon I was thinking 'this is like the movie version of Starship Troopers, but played straight' (so rather more like Heinlein's original novel, then).
Having said that, where the novel of Starship Troopers is an unapologetic manifesto for a certain kind of muscular libertarianism, the movie of Ender's Game always seems aware of the implied morality of its characters and story – indeed, it's central to the film. This is, I think, a film with an undeniable awareness of its own morality, and that morality is by and large a laudable one. And it's sophisticated, for a lavish SF movie – this is a movie about child soldiers, and the morality of conflict, but it doesn't deal in terms of moral absolutes. It's quite ironic, then, that this film has been subject to a boycott on ethical grounds when rather more dubious, brainless ones have sailed onto the screen unopposed.
Technically it's proficiently done too. The visual effects have that immaculate, heftless quality we've come to expect from big productions, but it's well performed by a strong cast – Butterfield is very good indeed, and Ford is pretty good value too. Hailee Steinfeld doesn't quite get the material she perhaps deserves, though. Popping up in the closing stages is Ben Kingsley as a tattooed veteran warrior. Kingsley has a bit of a reputation for being, perhaps, self-regarding and pretentious, but regardless of this the fact remains that he is simply a very, very fine actor and all that is on display here as usual.
Throughout the film one gets a sense of a big book being hacked down for the screen, but what emerges is a film with a coherent storyline that is pretty involving throughout. I haven't read Ender's Game, and I must confess I don't plan to, but simply judged as a film I think this works rather well.
One of the annoying things that happens to you as a hack critic now and then is coming up with a snappy line in advance of seeing a film and then having to discard it because it doesn't fit the facts. In this case I was all set to go with 'You shouldn't avoid Ender's Game because of Orson Scott Card's political beliefs. You should avoid it because it's a lousy film', but obviously that's not going to work now. Okay: whether or not you boycott Ender's Game because of Orson Scott Card's political beliefs is between you and your conscience. But if you do, you'll be missing out on a quietly superior SF movie.