Look: If your idea of a good time is to spend two hours being bombarded with the best in computer-generated imagery and a migraine generator of a score, then probably you will like Ender’s Game. And I do not cast aspersions on you for that! I, too, like things to blow up, and it seems to me an entire book of critical theory could be written in consideration of why it’s so fun to watch other (imaginary) people blow (imaginary) shit up. There is, after all, something more satisfying in it than actually blowing the shit up yourself, because you would, first of all, likely have to clean up the mess, which is another way of saying there would be repercussions for your momentary experience of stress release, and repercussions rather dampen catharsis.
That said, even on the scale of shit-blowing-up movies, Ender’s Game is not a terribly good one.
Let’s get the plot out of the way for those of you who were not devoted fans: Ender’s Game is the story of one Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a young man who turns out to have superior tactical abilities. He’s been tracked since birth by the government of his era, who are the survivors of an alien siege. The aliens — in the book they’re called “buggers,” an unfortunate term that the movie neatly sidesteps with “bug” — are returning, and the adults have been searching for a child to lead the battle. They aren’t driven by a prophecy of a Child Who Will Save Humanity or anything; they simply believe children have quicker reflexes from playing games. Ender, identified as particularly talented, is transported off to the Academy, where he engages in a lot of special effects dazzlery before the final battle.
The movie has been dogged by the book’s unfortunately loud-and-proud living author, Orson Scott Card. Card, as I heard someone at the screening tell their guest yesterday, is effectively a “crank, of the crazy libertarian variety.” He does not believe in the gays, for starters. (I’m not going to link to something he’s written; you can Google this subject with lightning-quick effectiveness.) He also, as recently as this past August, imagines a future in which Obama has made the world a simulacrum of Hitler’s Germany. And every time he appears with his little bons mots, sad publicists have had to come out and scrub the record clean: although he has a producer credit, Card wasn’t really involved with the movie, and his views don’t reflect those of the production staff or the cast members, blah blah, etc. They certainly did go out of their way, I think, to strip the story of its unseemlier elements: the use of “bugger” as a double-entendre slur, the way the boys in the book tease each other for hip-wiggling and other stereotypically “gay” behaviors.
But the stripping is just the problem. Of course I would never suggest that the homophobic undertones of the book — which so disturbed me on reading it earlier this week that I wasn’t able to finish the thing — be put back in. But along with them went the more emotionally compelling elements of the book. In the book, the reader is brought to identify with Ender, because Ender is effectively under siege: from his family, from his classmates, and from his fellow cadets. His deep loneliness appeals to the lonely kids who read this sort of thing, and even the lonely adults. There is a kind of profound rescue in the notion that that loneliness will make you strong.
Of course, slight spoiler, the narrative eventually pulls that rug out from Ender when it turns out that the adults’ crusade against the aliens isn’t necessarily mutual, and as Laura Miller put it at Salon yesterday, “What matters to Card in Ender’s Game — and I’m going to presume to think that I understand this better than even he does, given that he hasn’t shown much capacity for self-reflection in his public life — is that Ender has immense power and no responsibility, the mastery of a killer without ever choosing to kill.” It’s a bit undergraduate ethics class as a moral quandary, but fair enough: it’s still better as a mass obsession than, say, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
All of those observations about emotional resonance, sadly, apply solely to the book. This film is too busy trying to pack in as many game and battle sequences as humanly possible to attend to make time for them. No one goes to these things for the dialogue or the acting, of course, so I won’t bore you with any observations on those that go beyond concern about Harrison Ford’s forehead Botox habit, which is approaching Nicole Kidman territory. An intervention is required, Harrison, because you are like a fine red wine! And you don’t need the work.
But if there is one principle on which Star Wars unquestionably stands (other than daddy issues), it is the principle that intelligent dialogue and supple acting are by no means required ingredients in the fantasy-epic world. In fact, it’s a paradox of film particularly that all the technical mastery in the world might not add up to a single emotional experience. Whereas something as simple as Luke crying, “No!” when that lightsaber takes out Obi Wan Kenobi can give you the chill you went to the movies for in the first place. I know that people won’t care because all they want is to turn their brains off these days, when they go to the multiplex, and the explosions in Ender’s Game are more than enough for that. But even if you hate Card and all he stands for, even if you wish he’d just move into a cave, you have to admit: if his story resonated with millions, it deserved some less antiseptic treatment than this.