Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Film Friday: Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender’s Game wasn’t a bad movie from a technical standpoint. It was competently made. It had nice enough images. And it held my interest. BUT... it held my interest for the wrong reasons, and the moralizing, which has become the standard Hollywood treatment of war, annoyed me greatly. It flies in the face of human natures and hypocritically assigns moral-correctness to a cowardly tiny minority philosophy. Blech.
Plot
The plot is very generic. In essence, this film is a quasi-remake of Starship Troopers if it were done with the ideological sensibilities of Real Genius. What you have is Ender, a bright young kid who thinks strategically. So strategically in fact that he’s recruited to a military-run school that will teach him strategy through a series of games. Harrison Ford runs the school and recruited Ender personally. The reason for the school is that fifty years prior, the insects from Starship Troopers attacked the Earth. The Earthers were able to defeat them, but they learned they could only win with superior strategy... shocking! So they have built their military around finding people with strategic gifts, and they have decided that kids are best at it. Ergo, they are training kids to lead the drone fleet against the bugs.
The story begins with Ender being bullied in the school until he correctly analyzes the situation and kicks the bejesus out of the bully. Rather than getting himself expelled, this begins his promotion up the ranks. The next hour of the film involves Ender moving up the ranks, angering those above him, and learning how to win the games they play. This section shares the boot camp feel of Starship Troopers right down to Ender (almost) killing another student and than wanting to give up being a leader.

Anyways, as this is ongoing, the adults moralize about using kids to fight this war. They are using kids because kids have more creative minds. Eventually, Ender gets sent to lead the fleet and he and the other kids seem genuinely upset to learn that they may actually be involved in killing the enemy... even though they’ve been attending a school that teaches them combat and promises them that if they graduate, they will be made the commanders of the space fleet. Wow! Who could have seen that coming? In the end, Ender is told to play one final game. But is there something we don’t know about this game? Yeah, you can guess how that will turn out.
Blech
I have three problems with this film. Let’s address them in order they arise.

First... There isn’t a moment of this film that feels original. The training scenes are similar in theme and style to the training in Starship Troopers. The young soldiers being shocked to learn they are helping the military comes from Real Genius. The hero learning the truth in his dreams feels stolen from Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. And the things the film focuses on, like showing us zero-gravity training, are things every sci-fi movie does. Beyond that, the film is packed with tropes like the big bully white kid who needs to be brought down by the hero, the girl who falls for the nerd and must break away from the insecure male who dominates her, the hard-ass sergeant who tells us when Ender is finally approved as a hero, etc. Seen it all before... many times.
Secondly... While this film held my interesting, it did so for the wrong reason. Good films hold your interest by getting you involved with the plot or the characters, and you lose yourself in their world. This one kept my interest because I know there was a twist coming and I wanted to see if it was as obvious as it seemed. How did I know this film had a twist coming? Because this film beat you over the head with the idea that “there’s something they aren’t telling Ender!” Indeed, almost every scene with the adults ends with this suggestion.

Third... Finally, we come to the politics. Look, war is terrible. Anyone who’s ever been involved and seen the devastation, the death, the destroyed lives can tell you that. But that doesn’t mean that the human race is opposed to war in all circumstances. This is the problem with liberalism and Hollywood. They play at being pacifists and they act like no decent person could possibly want to fight a war or that no sane person could go through war and kill others without becoming insane. That’s bullship.

For one thing, whether or not war is good or bad depends on whether or not the war is wrong. If you are fighting to defend your country from an invader set to kill and destroy all of you, then war is a great thing. If you are trying to save six million Jews and free another 100 million Europeans from Hitler, then war is a great thing. Free the slaves? Good thing. Stop a genocide? Good thing. Hollywood forgets this. In Ender’s Game, the enemy wants to wipe out humanity. In those circumstances, people will enthusiastically sign up to fight this war. This is a good war with a clear mission. People don’t whine and moralize about whether or not wars like that are right or moral. So instantly, the film feels like it is establishing a false moral framework.
Further, for a huge segment of the population, killing honestly isn’t a problem. Soldiers do it all the time in war, and all but a tiny fraction come back and live normal, psychologically healthy lives – contrary to the Hollywood myth. Gang bangers and inner-city youths killed each other in droves in the 1980s and didn’t shed a tear. No one in jail feels guilty. History is replete with mass killings like Rwanda and the Chinese cultural revolution, where ordinary people decided to get even with people they saw as the enemy because of their wealth, their status or their ethnicity and they hacked those people to death. What’s more, they did this enthusiastically, they thought they were in the right, and few of them ever bothered to change their minds. And let’s not forget that Hollywood glorifies killing even as it pretends it’s heroes can’t handle killing.

This image that soldiers are deeply conflicted souls unwilling to kill an enemy unless tricked into it by their commanders and that, once they kill someone, they all break down and become pacifists just flies in the face of the human condition. And it simply strains credibility that a child like Ender, who opens the film by aggressively trying to main and destroy a bully so the bully will be too scared to try again in the future will be so averse to killing the enemy in a war for which he’s voluntarily training.

And let me add another layer to this stupidity: the enemy isn’t even human! They are bugs. Think about the last time you swatted a fly or stepped on a spider. Did you need counseling? Did you agonize for days about whether or not you would be able to kill said fly or spider? This film would have you believe that somehow you would agonize if faced with much larger, much more violent spiders bent on your destruction. That’s laughably stupid.
What this comes down to is fraudulent/hypocritical pacifism. I say “fraudulent/hypocritical” because the whole film is ideologically misleading. It starts by forcing the idea upon you that humans are by their very natures pacifists. This is pounded into you time and again – good humans aren’t violent and don’t kill, it destroys us psychologically to do so! And the film makes it clear that the burden of justifying war falls on the commanders, but then doesn’t let them try to prove it. Basically, they just keep saying, “It’s us or them,” and then they get frustrated and scream, “Just do what I tell you!” This leaves no doubt that pacifism is the only legitimate ideology here.

But then the film never offers a pacifist solution to the war. In other words, at no point does the film show how a war with murderous alien bugs can be resolved short of killing the bugs before they kill us. Instead, the characters solve the film by fighting and killing all the bugs and then weeping that they should have been pacifists. This is hypocritical bullshit.
Of course, the film tries to suggest that a pacifist solution would have been possible when Ender observes that the bugs haven’t attacked the Earth since we drove them back to their home planet, and when he claims the aliens weren’t really hostile as evidenced by them having their massive fleet just hovering above the planet rather than attacking the human fleet the moment the humans appeared. Of course, the fact that the aliens haven’t attacked Earth doesn’t make them pacifists, it means they don’t have the force to do it. And the fact they didn’t charge forward like idiots when they saw the humans means nothing, as defenders almost never do that – the benefit of being a defender is maintaining a defensive position as the other guy is forced to charge into your gunfire.

This is a stale and stupid message that I’m sick of seeing in modern science fiction. It’s unreal because it flies in the face of human nature which hasn’t changed in thousands of years. It’s annoyingly hypocritical to be blasted by a false ideology that doesn’t have the courage to show how that ideology is supposed to work, and then smears the people who keep the believers of this cowardly philosophy safe. Even more hypocritically, the people who are pushing this crap idea of pacifism then exploit violent action scenes to make their hero and sell their film to audiences. Hypocrites.

You know, this isn’t the worst film I’ve seen, but it is entirely derivative and it’s very tiring. I would not have missed it if I never saw it.

17 comments:

Kit said...

As someone who read the book, I thought the movie was ok. Not great, but ok. The zero-g scenes also felt kind of bland though that may have been because I had just seen Gravity, which had mind-blowing scenes set in zero-g (over 95% of the movie).

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I haven't read the book and maybe that would have helped, but as films go, this one was dull and super predictable.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I was gonna ask if you read the books. In this case, I don't think Hollywood can totally be blamed for a plot that existed elsewhere.

But yeah, I saw the film and thought it was bland bland bland: Starship Troopers without the satire. (I never read that book either, but I'm a fan of the film.) Nothing we haven't seen before. Good effects, but I knew there was a twist coming when I saw that we only had 10 minutes left during their big "game."

As far as killing bugs, I'm sure some people might be morally conflicted if faced with a sentient race that just happened to look disgusting. That's classic sci-fi.

djskit said...

This realy gets down to the core of the problem with "liberism" (really, leftism): the denial of human nature as it is. This is why liberal story telling so often fails. Oftern the best story telling comes from the acknowelgment of human nature and how we as a people and a person navigate that minefield in search of our goals.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's science fiction all right, but it's silly. It flies in the face of human nature. We are drawn instinctively to trust that which is most like us and to distrust and fear that which is different. And while a couple fools will feel bad for the bugs, the vast majority of humanity won't think twice about annihilating a race of creepy looking bugs who attacked us.

In any event, the bigger problem is this. Hollywood has gone to bugs and robots at the enemies because it allows the hero to slaughter them in vast numbers without the audience getting queasy that the hero is blood thirsty. In that kind of environment, it just doesn't work to have the hero fretting over killing bugs or robots.

That said, you are right that this came from a book and Hollywood can't be blamed completely -- though I also point out that they normally feel free to change anything they want, so saying "it was in the book" really isn't that much of a defense.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I agree. Liberalism is inconsistent with good storytelling because it denies human nature as it is and imposes these false constructs that don't resonate with people and which undermine the traditional techniques of storytelling that appeal to people. Essentially, it wipes out the conflicts we know and understand and it replaces them with false conflicts that are premised on nonsense.

5minutes said...

OK....

1. First, the reason a lot of the stuff ends up looking like Starship Troopers is because this movie was in development for decades and movies made along the way borrowed liberally from it.

2. The book was fantastic. A tad amateurish, but it's a kids sci-fi book, not a brainfest.

3. The theme of pacifism is played with, but it's part of the story, and I wouldn't exactly call Orson Scott Card a liberal.

Anthony said...

Sounds pretty bad. Never saw the movie or read the book in question, but the book is insanely popular and I have read some of Orson Scott Card's other work and he is an exceptional writer. Perhaps something critical was lost in the translation from novel to movie?

shawn said...

I had high hopes for the movie as I read the book back in '89 and several times since then. The book is one of my favorites. And I would say that this movie is probably the best we can hope for if one can only tell the story in 2 hours.

For me, the best parts of the book focused on battle school and Ender's leading his band of rejects upwards through the standings in the arena. Unfortunately, we only get two brief scenes in the arena in the movie. What is lost is seeing Ender develop new and untested strategies and learning how to be a good leader.

Pacifist stuff- In the book, the alien queen is trying to communicate with Ender through his game tablet but he never realizes it. At the end, on the former alien world, he discovers an egg with a queen waiting to be hatched. The queen uses telepathy to tell him that the aliens didn't realize that humans were intelligent because they didn't have a hive mind when they first encountered them, hence the first two wars. By the end of the second war, the aliens realized that humans had individual intelligence.

All in all, I would recommend the book, but the movie is bland and predictable, which I would put squarely on time constraints.

AndrewPrice said...

5minutes, Card declares himself a Democrat and has a lot of leftist views. Not all, but many. And if the film accurately portrays the book, then he's imbued this story with leftist views. If not, then the film had added them. That's possible as Card did not write the screenplay.

In terms of copying Starship Troopers, or vice versa, as I noted to Scott, when making a film, Hollywood normally considers itself free to change whatever it wants. They could have easily chosen to make the aliens something other than bugs or to make the bugs more human-like and less Starship Troopers like to avoid the obvious comparison.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, It's very possible they lost something in translation because I can't imagine that the book, if it were like the film, would hold much interest. So I suspect there is a good deal missing in the film that would flesh out the story and provide something more interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I'm coming to believe that for book adaptations, films are just not the way to go... television is. With television, you can take the time to develop the story, including its subplots. You tend to attract a more interested audience, so you can go deeper without dumbing it down. And the production values are now high enough that they rival anything you see on screen.

At this point, if I had a story I wanted to see done by Hollywood, I would push hard to go to television rather than a movie -- even if the money isn't the same.

In terms of the queen, I think they try to suggest that when Ender plays the videogame in the film. Harrison Ford says something about the game not being designed to let Ender see people in the game. The implication is either that some outside force has done this or Ender is special. Unfortunately, nothing is done to follow up on that until the very end.

Mike said...

I "liked" the film, ranking it a "6" on IMDb, but wished I could have done five and a half stars to have been more accurate as to how much I liked it. (I'm stingy with my ratings, most of my best movies get a "9") It's been years and years since I read the book, but I also thought it might be one of those rare instances where the movie was better than the book, but I'd have to re-read the book to honestly make that claim. (no offense to anyone who liked the novel, but I do remember not liking the sequels...but as I said, it's been a long time since I read them, and perhaps I'd like them better now) All that said, I did enjoy the movie, had hoped for a little better, but don't regret watching.

And, since Starship Troopers was mentioned, I've been anxiously awaiting the Haldeman The Forever War movie that's supposed to be in development. That's another book I read a long time ago, but as I recall, it had a distinct anti-war message to it...but I still loved it. (not so much the sequels)

Coincidentally enough, I watched 3 Days to Kill within a few days of watching Ender's Game and I kept thinking the young girl in it looked familiar and when the credits rolled, I figured out why; it was Hailee Steinfeld, also in the True Grit remake I later found out (and have been resisting seeing, but now think I give it a chance). I'm more than old enough to be Ms. Steinfeld's grandfather, but she's a pretty, talented young lady and I predict a bright future for her.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I kept thinking that Ender looked like Jeremy Renner.

I'd be curious to see The Forever War. I also wouldn't mind seeing a more faithful interpretation of Starship Troopers, but I'm not sure Hollywood has any genuine plans to do that.

5minutes said...

Oy...

OK, first, he may be a registered Democrat (according to Wikipedia, anyway), but he is very much a Reagan Democrat. He supported John McCain and Newt Gingrich in the last couple of elections, and while they may not be Ted Cruz, they're certainly not extreme leftists. He's pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, and is very concerned about Obama's misuse of the government, his cult of personality, and his comparisons to the rise of the national socialists in Germany. He also thinks global warming is a crock. He does tend to favor a social safety net, he thinks immigration reform is important, and more investment in alternative fuels, so you have me there.

But a full-on liberal? Maybe only in comparison to the Tea Party. Card is more of a centrist Democrat. If we had the party in this country, he'd probably be registered as a Christian Democrat, which would run in line with his Mormon beliefs.

Voz said...

I watched this and while I was impressed with the acting on the young actor's part, and Ford seemed to get back some of his gravitas which has been missing from some of his recent movies, or maybe it's just his growl of a voice, I didn't think the movie was amazing...the one thing I remember enjoying a lot was the score...I loved the music.

wulfscott said...

I liked Card's original story better than the novel that he expanded it into. I have not seen the movie; after these comments i think I'll wait for it on Netflix or HBO.
ScottDS - I hated Starship Troopers (the movie) because i really liked the book. On its own, though, it isn't a bad movie. I just have to forget there's an alleged connection to the book...
Andrew - I like that idea - stories going to television rather than the movies. The level of competition in television helps - you have to be good to stand out. Is this another example of Tueday's article? Not this movie specifically, but television vs. movies?

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