It's almost a relief that Ender's Game has turned out to be a glum bore onscreen, a far-future cadets-in-space military drama whose pretensions to moral inquiry boil down to the guilt a kid may feel after stepping on an anthill. If the film had turned out grand, like the best of the novel it’s based on, many potential viewers would have faced a true dilemma: Is it ethical to support the creative work of a man who has loudly and proudly declared himself to be on the wrong side of the great civil rights battle of the day?
It's not news that Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card is a homophobic turd who has declared that anyone caught “flagrantly” engaging in gay sex “cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.” Or that in May of this year he posted to his website a “silly thought experiment” in which he likened Barack Obama to Hitler and predicted that the president will militarize “urban gangs” and “send them out to channel their violence against [his] enemies.”
I'll leave to you the question of whether it's right to buy a ticket to an adaptation of this man's imaginings. Instead, I ask you to consider how his personal failings compromise the work itself. One calling of the serious science-fiction writer is to craft a learned projection of what we and our universe might become. For all his smart work on future tech and the nature of war, Card has failed to imagine the egalitarianism of even the human present, much less that of centuries from now. Ender's Game, first published in 1985, offers one of those jumpsuit futures where all the clothes and people seem to have come out of a spigot, like frozen yogurt—it’s somehow less egalitarian than the real world just three decades after it was written.
In Gavin Hood's movie, Ender gets shipped off to Harrison Ford's Earth-orbiting “Battle School,” a sort of Hogwarts for future war criminals. His mission: to become the kiddo military officer so ruthless and savvy he can lead humanity to victory against the insectoid aliens who attacked Earth some 20 years prior. The gifted white kid is always surrounded by brown- and black-skinned classmates, but the story gives them nothing to do but react to Ender — to marvel at his intelligence, to envy his victories, to salute him warmly when he's promoted ahead of them.
Briefly, Ender is subordinate to a cruel Latino commander who keeps calling him “pendejo,” a rare case of any character here expressing anything resembling an ethnic identity. That builds to many scenes of brilliant Ender showing up Bonzo, the hot-blooded lug, who eventually resorts to dumb violence not far removed from what Card dreams Obama's gangs might try. Ender, of course, prevails—and then feels bad that he had to fight. If only Bonzo would have known his place!
What makes Ender so great? He's just born that way, like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, or anyone who has ever believed that the color of their skin confers upon them some natural superiority. Card has envisioned a far-off tomorrow where most non-whites understand their subordinate position to white leaders, despite the fact that, even today, white folks are a global minority. This guy wasn't writing of a possible future; he was dreaming of a lost South.
Some of the movie isn't bad. Ford, as high commander muckety-muck, spends a lot of time scheming to harden and sharpen Ender, to strip away his humanity and build a better killer. He's amusingly gruff as he pushes Ender and the kids-club military not just to victory against the aliens but toward perpetrating a full genocide—an ugly, resonant idea the filmmakers make a hash of but that Card handles well in the book. Asa Butterfield plays Ender as a keyed-up kid who has learned to affect a persuasive calmness. He sells the many repetitive scenes of Ender outwitting everyone, but he's not up the high emotions of the final reels, probably because the movie isn't, either—in the last half hour, the most momentous events in the history of our universe pass by in a bewildering rush.
The ridiculousness outweighs those few strong qualities. Battle School centers on one of those stupid Quidditch-style competitions whose rules include an automatic-win condition only Ender and Harry Potter are smart enough to go for. Everything comes so easy for Ender that his big challenge before the climax is to learn to delegate—that's not drama, that's an anecdote for a job interview. Attacked in the showers, Ender manages to scald a boy with water from a nozzle he had just been standing nude beneath, and we have to watch him play terrible personality-testing dream-vision video games that are even less engaging than all the scenes of him playacting as a space commander in combat simulators. The space battles don't have the usual problem of looking like video games; instead, they have the unusual problem of looking like terrifically cluttered screensavers. Everyone still says “email,” which I guess means there's hope for the postal service. And the big twist, which I won't spoil, manages to be simultaneously absurd and predictable.
In the end, our hero learns the encouraging lesson that alien races are worth trying to understand. Is it naive of me to hope that watching this movie and revisiting this story might inspire Card to try doing the same—but toward other humans?