Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game and why everyone needs a Petra

Those who have read Orson Scott Card's science fiction classic Ender's Game don't need directions to find the IMAX auditorium at their local multiplex - it's down. The film follows relatively faithfully the original novel and has lots of attention to details, which is important for high-profile book adaptations such as this.

I sat next to a family - parents with their roughly 7-year-old son. After a while, they all moved one seat away from me, which was unexplicable for me, but I guess people behave like that at movie theaters. When the film started, this little guy was quickly served with images of a boy of his age killing another and being rewarded with admission to a school, then becoming a child soldier.

There was more killing and I sometimes glanced upon him to check whether he was ok. At one point he climbed to his mom's lap. When Ender's last game started, he was sitting on the edge of his seat - literally.

Had I seen this film when I was seven, I might have been traumatized for life.

Now, the review.

Ender's Game: the review

The film, directed by David Gavin, was quite good. Of course, it omitted a lot of material from the book and dismissed whole subplots. Very few actual battles were shown, which is a pity, because the book's narrative revolves around them and Ender's responses to the challenges in them - and the challenges that the number and timing of battles pose. The film looked good, mostly what I imagined Battle School to be, and the Command School's simulated battleships were awesome. Roles were well cast and the soundtrack was nice. This film was not 3D, which was awesome, too.

As expected, the 15-year-old Asa Butterfield is excellent as Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, the young boy who gets recruited into International Fleet's training program, to become a future battle commander. He plays the role very well, and even shows emotion well. However, he seems very tall compared to others, even though he is supposed to be much younger than them - six years old at the beginning of the book (they don't reveal his age in the film). Also, it was a bit strange to see girls with breasts among the cadets that are supposed to be little kids. (As a side note, Hailee Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian was 16 years old when this film was shot.)

Moises Arias as Bonzo Madrid is excellent in his role, displaying some genuine passion and being exactly the kind of guy he is in the book. Ender's friends Bean, Petra and Alai are portrayed quite well, but due to constraints film as medium presents, their characters were not fully explored. 

Even more than The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Peter Jackson, this film is is an illustration of a story we already know, and it is not even expected to deviate from it. It doesn't change the story much, but now we have a face for Ender, Anderson, Mazer and so on. I like those faces in general, but Harrison Ford's Graff and Viola Davis' Anderson (changed to a female character) are a bit too grumpy and spend time mumbling instead of showing emotion and caring about Ender's planned mission.

This story would have worked much better as a miniseries, let's say of five one-hour episodes: 1. Before Battle School 2. As a Launchie 3. Dragon Army 4. Combat School 5. Graduation Battle. The film had the correct ingredients but not enough time to use them. The ceremonial nature of Battle Room games was left unexplored, with all the different ways Ender was frustrated with how the system was cheating him and trying to break him down, and how he overcame those challenges.

I liked it. Not because it was a good movie, but because of how it colors the story I know and how it gives me a new perspective to some things from my youth. I'd like to reorient myself to a new reference frame to explain, if you may.

Ender the terrible

Ender is exceptional. After all, he is a product of the system, and the International Fleet aimed to produce and find somebody like him, an ideal commander, who has since childhood conditioned himself to think like a military leader. Still, the story happens in a school setting; Ender has classmates and teachers, he makes friends and enemies, faces bullies, and so on. Each reader surely finds something to relate to, even if Ender as a person feels distant.

I'm not Ender. He's a brutal child soldier who kills, and also a military genius who commands his team and goes beyond duty to accomplish his mission. Did I say he is exceptional? He's young and determined, and he defeats all challenges ever thrown at him, and ultimately commits genocide.

In Ender's Game, many aspects of war and childhood are laid bare in an offending manner. Even if the choices the characters make can be somewhat justified to save the Earth, by any modern rationale Graff and Ender are guilty of horrible crimes, yet they are unquestionably protagonists. Graff and Anderson stage children against each other, to "toughen them up" and find their own solutions, while almost breaking Ender, while Anderson is playing crazy and despicable mind games with them.

When I was a kid, my math teacher would sometimes say at the beginning of a class "Mikko will now list the correct answers to the homework". And I did. It would be stupid not to admit that how Ender made Bean explain the flaws in enemy army's tactics rang the bell. Is alienating good students from others something teachers learn in pedagogical studies? I played the part but I didn't think I had a choice. What the film missed was the fact that Ender was doing to Bean what Graff had done to him, and he was shocked how natural it was for him.

And the thing about enemy's gate. Aside from the two obvious enemy's gates (the goal of the Battle Room and the Bugger homeworld), there are lots of other concepts in Ender's Game that benefit from the idea of reorienting yourself to the correct reference frame. The Battle School makes sense in a certain reference frame. Maybe you'd have to abandon the traditional paradigm about how to treat children, or how to let them treat others, but in a certain reference frame... Rackham's teachings might make sense, too, and in the end, Ender orients himself to the Formics' reference frame and everything looks very different.

This idea of constant reorientation is relevant to the concept of games in the narrative. Games, training, real war, what's the difference? Ah, the reference frame. Children, soldiers, killers. However, to me, Ender's world also seems very unfair from the beginning, and the main method of training in the Battle School is to make it even less fair for him. Now, we get to the ultimate reorientation. For Ender, acknowledgement is humiliation, reward is punishment, friends are enemies, winning is losing, quitting is reorientation, and in the end, playing a game is committing a genocide. The idea of winning and quitting being so closely tied together in the story is intriguing. The idea of abandoning what you thought were rules - since it is apparent that the enemy, or the teachers, don't follow them either - is a key to Ender's victories.

What's Ender's own reference frame? It's revealed at the end of the story, when he becomes the Speaker for the Dead. 

Everyone needs a Petra

Hailee Steinfeld gives her face to Petra Arkanian, the sharpshooter Ender meets right when he reports to the Salamander Army. Unlike so many others at the Battle School, she's friendly and supportive - and she's a girl.

It is explained in the book hat most cadets are male because most women are simply inferior in the type of reasoning that is required in combat. Petra is clearly an exception, but she is also a source of smiles, friendship and affection - especially in contrast to Bonzo Madrid, her commander - and thanks to Steinfeld, she's also extremely pretty. If this was any other story, Ender and Petra would share a nervous but romantic moment in the weightlessness of the Battle Room. 

Yet with all these stereotypes, everyone needs a Petra. She might not be a leader, but she has her stuff together and doesn't have the burden of self-doubt that Ender has. With all the clever and capable friends Ender has, is it Petra whose smile matters in the end, after everything she has done and been for him?

It would be stupid not to admit that I needed a Petra when I was a kid. A supporting character and a sharpshooter. Of course I would have had a crush on her, it would've been a safe bet, even if she was older, like Petra of Ender's Game. She'd have been instrumental in making me understand when to quit and when to reorient for the goal (ok, ok, maybe everyone needs a Bean, too). "Life is cheating, so why aren't you?"

Above all, a Petra is needed to counter the perceived unfairness of life. 

This is the last line of this blog post, so there should be a reference to the direction of the enemy's gate, but we're already there.

Update 2013-11-04: Fixed two typos.