Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Ender's Game" is Beautiful, Thoughtful

When I was eleven, my mother brought me to an audition for a Children's Chorus.  I capitalize those words for a reason--the three years I spent there demanded excellence from me in ways I had never expected.  In my first audition we were given a piece of music, taught it in a group of 300, and asked to come to the front of the group and sing for the rest.  Seeing a pattern in others' manner of doing things, I gathered my wits, memorized the words, and set down the paper on the auditioner's table before singing.  I was part of the eighty or so children who moved on from that audition and joined the chorus.

I felt like a loner for almost my entire experience in that chorus.  I accidentally hurt myself very stupidly in school during that time, and several other singers mocked my bandages, reinforcing my sense of absolute loneliness.  I barely made any friends, even at the summer camps we attended, and I spent all my energy trying to sing as well as I could.  Not make friends with the leaders, not make friends--I worked as hard as I could.  I saw other singers as rivals, and when I got solos over them, I rejoiced inwardly.  I was not a child prodigy, but I fought like one.  Perhaps for this reason, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is one of the shaping stories of my childhood.  Though it surely is not perfect, Gavin Hood's adaptation does a passable job of bringing it to us untainted and unhindered.

"Young people integrate complex data more easily than grown-ups," says Colonel Hyrum Graff, the hard-bitten recruiter (played with a thoughtful ruthlessness by Harrison Ford) to Ender, the young strategical prodigy.  Graff has a hard job: enlisting young minds to help humanity wipe out the aliens that almost killed them fifty years ago.  His journey and Ender's--not only to save humanity but to become adults in the process--is the basis of one of the most powerful, emotional, and effective pieces of science fiction ever written.

The story is centered on children fighting one another.  Even in his small school on Earth, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin beats everyone.  His strategy makes a much bigger boy call him a cheater, and when the boy corners Ender after school, Ender gives him a beating that makes the other cronies tremble.  He is not only smart, he is vicious--characteristics that make Ender at once frightening and fascinating.

Ender's nature as a fighter is very much played down in the film.  Asa Butterfield's performance shows a consistently compassionate, thinking boy who cries more than he shouts.  Though the screenplay shows him talking too much about his near-psychopathic brother Peter, he is clearly more like his sister Valentine (played lovingly but not very deeply by Abigail Breslin) whose compassion made her unfit for Battle School.

But fit is exactly what Ender is, and a housecall from Graff and a Colonel Anderson (Viola Davis) sends Ender skyrocketing up into orbit, where a few score children under the age of sixteen train for combat, leadership, and the eventual command of Earth's Fleet.

And this is where the games begin.  Once there, Ender and his new friends (enemies) are thrown into a zero-gravity space game that allows them to experiment, lead, and fight one another.  The film presents the idea more excitingly than could have possibly been done even ten years ago, and it is a sight to behold.  The few matches that we actually see are gripping and exciting, and the victories are satisfying.

The great weakness of the film comes in its first forty minutes.  Main characters are introduced and voiceovers tell us why they are important, but rarely do we get to see the interactions that make them that way.  Bean and Petra, key characters from the book, never have true interactions with Ender to show us why to care about them.  Thus their quips, little glances, and interactions later do not come with the emotional impact that makes the end of the book so moving.  The entire story clips along so fast that even Ender's family does not draw us as much as the beauty of the game.

Though it weakens the film completely, it still is somewhat appropriate.  Ender's Game reminds us how believing children are.  If they are told that the people around them are their rivals, their competition, they will believe.  They will fight one another, even when it makes them depressive, even when it makes them insane.  This game that may not be as serious as everyone believes comes to rule these children's lives, until they are willing to kill one another for it.

But the movie also explores compassion as an antidote or even a companion to competition.  The game begins with a text quote from "A.E. Wiggin" saying "In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him"--an axiom that, though arguable, brings up some interesting questions.  Ender thinks constantly about how to deal with his opponents compassionately, or more significantly with those he commands.  In order for him to succeed, Ender must know the weaknesses and strengths of his friends as well as his enemies.

The rest of the film brings us farther from the battle room and from Earth, to simulations of space battles with the aliens.  These antlike creatures, called Formics, possess a massiveness and terror that, through impressive work on the part of all the creators involved, become beautiful in their own way.  Ender's journey questions what the effect of any battle, even a simulated one, has on our consciousness and the way we view the world.

In the end, Ender's most impressive quality is his story.  The film can have all the weaknesses it will, but the depth of its story and the issues it considers might make it one of the best science fiction films ever, easily surpassing the Star Wars series for depth of meaning and emotional imagination.  Given these things, it is incredible that portions of the film community can brush off something so intelligent and worth-considering because of opinions held by the original author or (worse) because of the man's religion.  Such a thing is so petty that I wonder if even these children would do it.

I highly recommend Ender's Game, the film, and the book even more highly.  In watching it I considered myself again.  I have never been to Battle School, never fought aliens, but I have been a child who thought he had to fight other children in order to be better.  I have thought winning was better than friendship, that survival was better than love.  This book helped me recognize the cost of excellence, and though I do not think that I am perfect yet, I am glad to be able to look back and say that I have found, like Ender, a higher purpose.  I hope someday to teach this to my children, and when I do, it might be after we watch the 2013 film of Ender's Game.

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