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Ender’s Game

November 1, 2013
Ender's Game

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: there are all sorts of reasons you might want to avoid Ender’s Game. Much of the clamor is around the fact that Orson Scott Card, the author of the original novel, is a virulent, outspoken homophobe who pumps money into anti-LGBT causes, and that some small portion of each ticket may eventually make its way to those causes. It has been asserted that the deal was strictly for movie rights and no portion of the profits, but still people are upset. This is a perfectly valid reason to boycott a movie, and I won’t blame anyone for going that route — in fact, I’d kind of encourage it in this case, or any of the other suggestions Alyssa Rosenberg made back in February — but as a critic I have to judge the art rather than the artist.

No, the more salient reason to reject Ender’s Game is that it is, in fact, a terrible, terrible story. This is true back to the original novel, as Stephen Bond explains better than I could. As a summation: Ender’s Game is a kind of pornography, but one designed to deliver a regular hit of righteous self-satisfaction at the end of each chapter rather than a sexual thrill. Ayn Rand’s novels are almost primally appealing to a certain type of well-off young-adult male seeking justification and approval for his sense of selfish entitlement; in the same way, Ender’s Game is crafted to satisfy the longings of a certain bookish pre-teen or teenager who has totally swallowed the nonsense that “they make fun of you because they’re jealous”, and is desperate for a chance to “show them all” and yet still feel sorry for himself.

Everything in Bond’s critique of the novel applies to Gavin Hood’s big-screen adaptation as well. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one of the biggest Mary-Sue characters ever. He’s great at everything he does; girls — like his sister (Abigail Breslin) and classmate Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld) — automatically love him, while boys split into those who admire him immediately, those who try to oppose him but will soon be brought to heel, and those who try to oppose him and must be put down — Bean (Aramis Knight), Bernard (Conor Carroll), and Bonzo (Moisés Arias), respectively. And yet despite being great, Ender still feels like an outcast.

The sort of kid to whom Ender is crafted to appeal has difficulty accepting that he might be at fault for his social isolation — that someone so smart couldn’t be socially deaf and dumb. No, it must be some sort of conspiracy to persecute him. And indeed, Ender is being specifically isolated by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) in some sort of attempt to improve his leadership skills. Because the best commanders have no personal rapport with their lieutenants, I guess.

Opposite the tough, gruff Graff is Major Anderson (Viola Davis), who takes the maternal, caretaker role, concerned for Ender’s psychological well-being, but ultimately shouted down by the father figure. Again, women are automatically supportive, nurturing, and subservient to Ender, while men vacillate between admiration and failed attempts to dominate this unstoppable force.

To cap off the Mary-Sue characterization, Ender has a Destiny, and it’s presented in the laziest way possible. There’s no mystery about it, and no question that Ender is the Chosen One. It’s simply stated, over and over, that Ender will be the one who leads Earth’s forces to victory over the ant-like Formics. And seriously, “Formics”? did someone get a Latin dictionary for Christmas? It’s just a sequence of victory after victory for Ender until he finally wins everything.

And still he manages to feel sorry for himself, because he’s also better than everyone else at sensitivity and compassion. In fact, he can only beat everyone else because he’s able to understand and love them so deeply. The words have a kind of pretty ring to them, but they’re the most infantile, self-serving nonsense of all.

The only question is the production value, which gets my resounding “meh”. The imagery is evidently very well funded, but looks generic and bland. The acting is also generic and bland, with the exception of Arias’ Bonzo, who looks positively psychotic next to his cardboard-cutout costars.

Whether you’re boycotting Ender’s Game over Card’s politics or not, it’s still a half-hearted adaptation of a terrible story. Many children may have derived some comfort from the novel — I certainly did when I was too young to know better — but it’s the comfort of stasis and sycophancy. The kids who identify with Ender deserve support, to be sure, but they deserve to be challenged and helped to improve, not to be placated into stagnant self-satisfaction.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Andrei permalink
    November 1, 2013 17:21

    I love Bond’s essays too!

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