Orson Scott Card adaptation proves war is more exciting than peace

Ender’s Game was a favourite adolescent read of mine alongside others like The Hobbit and Starship Troopers . Orson Scott Card’s novel read (at the time) like a lightning-fast sci-fi tale full of ideas and action led by a brainy young protagonist. It’s long been a part of the sci-fi cannon and fans have waited nearly 30 years for it to arrive on the big screen.

I pulled out my old paperback to take another look and made it about 50 pages in before I flung it across the room. It’s full of typically wooden sci-fi writing and G-rated language somehow unintentionally oblique and a page-turner at the same time. I suspect its continued popularity is due to video game culture – Ender’s Game reads like a first-person shooter and probably appeals to people who think video games have great “stories.”

Harder to ignore is Card’s repugnant ideas on homosexuality and gay marriage (of which he’s a strong vocal opponent) all filtered through his avowed Mormon faith. None of that is really in the novel but there are a few fishy details: the bad aliens in the novel are called “buggers” and people are persecuted for having too many children. There was a movement to boycott the film upon its release a sentiment that I suspect most people have forgotten or don’t care about. Yeah a movie is just a movie but Card has done a lot to tarnish his career. It’s something to think about.

The movie studio must’ve taken notice. The film wisely jettisons any traces of Card’s more publicly offensive beliefs and ideas. What’s left is a basic zero-to-hero tale with spaceships. After the Earth has been nearly destroyed by the Formics an alien race seemingly bent on colonizing the planet humans have turned all of their efforts to building and maintaining a mega military. Becoming an officer is a huge deal and all children vie for a chance to attend military school. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the perfect candidate a lanky teen with superb tactical skills and a subtle sense of diplomacy. He’s plucked out of school by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford bored as usual) a gruff officer who sees in Ender the makings of a brilliant soldier.

Ender’s fellow recruits don’t appreciate his company – he’s immediately taken for a smarmy know-it-all – but they quickly realize he’s the leader. They’re trained in the art of interstellar combat playing video game simulations of warring spaceships and duking it out in the “battle room” a giant zero gravity romper room where they play an elaborate version of laser tag. After “graduating” Ender and his pals enter the final test a simulated attack on the enemy’s home planet. They think they’re just playing a game. Or are they?

The central conceit of Ender’s Game – old men training children to fight wars – has teeth of course because it’s something we’ve done for thousands of years. Card has the space and time to explore that in the book. The film however proves Francois Truffaut’s observation that it’s nearly impossible to make an anti-war film because movies make war look like a ton of fun. Ender’s Game is like one of those interim “narrative” scenes from a video game stretched out over two hours. It’s a basement dwelling preteen’s wet dream. Any philosophical heft the book has is erased with the perfunctory game-like structure — do this task then this one then face the final boss etc. It’s impossible for the characters to emerge under the constant digital noise. We’re bombarded with so many lights and pixels that the film becomes utterly meaningless. Like a video game there’s nothing at stake here except frustration and lost time.

Ender’s Game was the first in a series of novels featuring the adolescent hero. The ending of the film is perfunctory promising a different kind of quest for the boy genius. I’d be surprised if people show up to see it — why watch a movie about peace when war is so much more exciting?