Ender's Game and the Infitnite Importance of Science Fiction Aesthetic Unity

by - Wednesday, November 20, 2013

from www.collider.com
Last weekend, The Boy and I went to see Ender's Game. This film is based on an Orson Scott Card book of the same name from 1985. A lot has happened since 1985, and the movie suffers from it (as well as suffering from being mind numbingly boring, but we will get there). First of all, Orson Scott Card has turned out to be a very special, very fascist kind of kooky, and that isn't a good look on anybody. This setback seems relatively minor in comparison to the other problem this adaptation faces: a whole lot of science fiction has used the best of the ideas here at play (kids as killing machines, video games and their connection to reality, aliens and ant as somehow similar), so even the book is an originary source, the straight from the pages adaptation comes off as derivative and uninspired.

The Boy took this shortcoming to heart (Aliens' mother ant alien really haunted the pink slightly friendlier version in this film), but I think the greatest travesty of all is that because of the themes of this book, this shortcoming could have become the its strength. The tropes that this film subverts (and I am just going to go for the spoilers here, since the book is older than I am) are as much at play as they ever were, so the fact that the hero feels guilt at the end could have been profound and a real indictment of the audience that goes to see these movies over and over again. We have already all seen at least 10 movies about fighting aliens, so why not play with our expectations more?

Now a lot of things would have to improve for the movie to fulfill this goal- the dialogue is heavy and expository (come on people, show, don't tell), the character-split comes off as misogynistic (girls are so sensitive), the acting is poor (Asa Butterfield!!!!), and the movie doesn't hit the landing in a way that we should feel particularly sad about what has happened. All of these shortcomings are exacerbated by the laziest (yet I am sure very expensive) art direction I have seen in a while. It really did feel like their entire alien aesthetic was lifted from Aliens ("but let's make it pink, because girls are sensitive!") and the spaceship and militaristic elements were entirely played out. There was one moment where dear old Asa was sleeping (his best acting yet) where they shot him from the forehead down and he looked like a really stereotypical alien.

This simple shot spoke to the incredible lost potential this movie had aesthetically. Why not play with, even emphasize, the tropes that have solidified since the film was made? Why not make the military feeling even more stark and ridiculous? Why not highlight his liminal position and arrogance aesthetically? Why not play more with the video game aesthetic to make it more stylized? At the same time, I think the filmmakers zeal to incorporate new film technologies (and ideas of the "realistic game") without thinking through what the aesthetics had to do with the ideas hurt them at the end.
from www.focusfilm.co.uk
In the final sequence, Ender begins to use body language to control fleets of people as the "simulation" completely surrounds him. The realism of this environment and his weird conductor like movements make no sense logically or thematically. Where in these aesthetics do we see a belief it is just a game? This may seem slight, but after seeing this film, I now realize that any great science fiction film has its own aesthetic which has a specific and symbiotic relationship with the themes at play. Science fiction and fantasy novels can easily slide into a listing of events, with little character or ideas, but great science fiction is using a conceit to ask great questions. When science fiction becomes film, their aesthetics have as large a role as the characters or plot points. It takes the film from being about some stuff to being about a real idea. Don't believe me? I'll prove it:

from classicblanca.blogspot.com
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not just an incredibly romantic film, it works as a spectacular (and still underrated) science fiction film. As the film plays with ideas of what we choose to remember and how the brain even works, the film often looks like an instagram picture, edges and color fading. In this sequence, the environment around the characters disappears. The book covers white out one by one. The environments the characters move in mimic the erasing that takes place in the plot.

from leviathyn.com
When you think of The Matrix, you get a few mental images- the room made out of green 0's and 1's, Agent Smith, and a lot of shiny black fabric. This movie's basic idea - our whole reality is a computer and so forth- is constantly at play in it's aesthetic. The film works in monochrome- 2 poles much like the 2 numbers that make up binary code.

from www.cinemasgaumontpathe.com
Need more proof? The pure aesthetic middling horror of Queen Amidala and Tatouine proves that this isn't an issue of resources. Ideas live in the visual, and if you don't have a good idea of what you are doing, you end up with some weird orientalist costumes inside a Florentine cloud city? What is the idea of this woman? I know this one- it is that she sucks, and Carrie Fisher should spit on her super lame mother's grave.

I could go on and on about this. Find me a strong science fiction film with a wimpy aesthetic, and I will give you a million dollars. This isn't always true in other genres of film, where you can get away with lackluster or typical art direction. Science fiction DEMANDS a close attention to the visual, and if you try to slip by, you let every possibility of your story pass by with it. Shame on the people behind Ender's game for trying to event by event adapt Scott Card's book, rather than thinking about what it is actually saying, then putting those ideas into some visual practice. Their laxidasical and uninspired filmmaking shows in every frame. Science fiction people, step it up, or don't bother. If you just want to plug into a formula with no extra thought, I suggest you go into superhero movies.

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