Attack of the Drones
Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot and the film’s ending. You may want to sleep through this title before reading what follows, including user comments.
In light of Orson Scott Card’s opposition to gay marriage, and the implied homo-disdain there voiced, it’s unfortunate that he chose to call the antagonists of his 1985 junior sci-fi war novel, buggers. Freudians the world over have looked again at the book now it’s been adapted for the big screen, wondering whether the whole thing can be read as an allegory for hormonal teens fighting perversion. The film’s producers have asked that people look beyond the innuendo and concentrate on the story’s real message, but decoding it is another matter.
Director and adaptor-in-chief Gavin Hood, last seen answering for the Wolverine prequel at the International Film Crimes Court, wants us to exit his adventure believing that its purpose is to educate young adult patrons on the virtues of peace and diplomacy…but only after he’s had fun playing war and blowing shit up.
Asa Butterfield’s half-pint is marked out as a master tactician, conditioned to kill at junior boot camp, in scenes reminiscent of a Young Full Metal Jacket, and given the hard sell when it comes to the kind of preventative war beloved of military hawks everywhere. But the titular Ender’s no mini-solider, he’s a liberal proxy, so despite getting both himself and the audience off on some wargame victories and an ascent up the ranks, in which he’s free to indulge in both authoritarian and aggressive instincts, he ultimately concludes it’s not the winning that counts but “how we win”. What a come down for young warmongers hiding erections following Butterfield’s orchestrated alien genocide.
Naturally, given the subject matter, Ender’s Game stokes memories of John Badham’s Wargames, another movie in which young gamers got to play boom boom but ultimately saw the folly following a brush with annihilation. Badham’s treatment was better judged and more succinct, however. Matthew Broderick’s victory over the WOPR computer was also the defeat of mechanical, military logic: the idea that being human means stopping this deadly game before it starts. In Hood’s film the game is played out, the moral a finger-wagging coda. Why do it this way? It’s the payoff for an audience conditioned to expect a grandiose space battle for the better part of two hours. Credit must go to Hood and Card; they worked out a way to both deliver the payload without compromising their hero’s peace keeping instincts and comment on the cognitive disconnect that exists between remote warfare and real casualties, but the film that precedes the admonishment has been designed to appeal to the very instincts it pretends to criticise. How else to deliver the spectacle and thrills considered vital to the movie’s prospects with its target demographic?
A satire like Starship Troopers feels like a better way of squaring this circle. Johnny Rico and his pals never learned a damn thing and the movie was better for it. It was enough that we knew humanity were the bad guys. Here the didacticism feels like a false note, too little, too late.
The insincerity’s compounded by Hood’s workmanlike direction and an indifferent cast. Butterfield just about holds up in the lead role but the Bugsy Malone company make it difficult to take the dramatic beats seriously, with one left to wonder whether kids are really the ideal on-screen surrogates for audience members of the same age. When I was a boy all my heroes were adults: that’s how young imaginations get their kicks. These after-school soldiers, plot essential or no, are too slight to engage our attention while the adults, Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, cut mono-dimensional figures in a film that desperately needed some weight to bring it to life. As it stands it evokes the gaming experience all too well.