Monday, December 9, 2013

2013 in Shit: Ender's Game

There's a scene in Ender's Game (there are a lot of scenes really) where Ender Wiggin stands up for one of his classmates to a bully, to the general approval of his classmates and the teacher. The bully sends out a class-wide IM from the iPad embedded in his desk, and Ender responds. It's one of the moments that is supposed to show his development; amongst his peers as a leader, in the eyes of his betters as a force to be reckoned with, among the viewer as a sympathetic guardian of the downtrodden.

Is it totally rude to say that the only role I've ever enjoyed Harrison Ford in is his narration of the theatrical version of Blade Runner? I kind of hate that movie, and having a pissed off, detached Ford displaying nothing but drunken contempt -- ostensibly for being forced to cheapen it, but to my mind for the whole thing itself -- was, if nothing else, incredibly funny. He's kind of wonderful in this movie too, given how alternatively bemused and befuddled he presents the whole time. It's goofy on the level of staring at a gif and wondering why someone thought that was a good thing to make, except it's into a camera in an expensive as fuck fictional universe that feels like the most elaborate anachronism of all time, and he shows up to do it over and over over the course of two hours.

Ender's iPad counterbullying sticks because it is one of the few moments where it feels like the film's extrapolated future maybe isn't entirely, 100% ludicrously awkward unintentional kitsch retrofuture. The movie's so unable to take into account any of the social or economic developments of the last eighty years that it seems like it might as well be propoganda against the upcoming second World War, if not for some tenuous metaphorical leanings on 80s USian narratives about the Vietnam War and the One-Child Policy. Except, of course, that it postures as though it is a critique of militarism, and does so on a decidedly 2013 budget.

I feel at a loss when I try to describe how hilarious the massive digital space stations attempting to look Profoundly Futuristic come off. Part of that is that I have some sense of cultural memory of when that wasn't utterly, self-evidently stupid, at least to people of my class; even though I never gave a fuck about becoming an astronaut, I at least grew up being told that it was a thing that people wanted to be. And passing notes in your elementary school class on a touch screen computer might have been something to which I'd aspired if I ever had any interest in passing notes to someone. And Ender's Game even gets the thrill of that wrong the second the teacher approves; what the fuck is the joy of having instantaneous, clandestine communication when it can't shield you any better (in fact, shields you even worse) than the less advanced alternative? In any other movie I'd probably defend this, at least on the grounds of representing in its own terms the knowledge of the total insecurity against authority that any digital transmission has, but hell if I'm feeling even remotely generous to this one. If your whole film is about a dead dream of the future, why not make the one thing you do almost right at least appealing to the fantasies of your audience? Because then, of course, we wouldn't learn that genocide is, if still regrettable, justified on terms of moral intent and retrospective regret, which, well.

The one thing I did appreciate was that the movie reminded me why I ended up reading a sequel or two after being assigned the book in a high school science fiction course: I willfully interpreted the Mind Game against the obvious authorial statement about games and just let it be as cool as it was. All that bullshit about its contents representing the true psychological state of Ender aside, the representation of a truly procedural narrative game, drawing on fantastika to present apparently-insurmountable challenges that required the player's opting out of the game's apparent systems to be overcome was cool as fuck to me. In retrospect, of course, it is just another element of a shitty moralizing argument, but damned if it isn't, divorced of its context, the shit. Unfortunately there isn't nearly enough of it in the movie to achieve much of anything. Even as what is present of it in the movie is easily the best part.

Excepting, if you happened to see it in the same theater at the same time as me, one wonderful bit of crowd reaction. If my enjoyment of The Purge was largely amplified by the crowd's engagement, then Ender's Game was only tolerable because of it. At the moment in the film when Boneso, Ender's temporary antagonist, is shown in some absurd medical device, having just been accidentally brained by Ender in a shower-room fight, Ender's Game's manipulative moralism is at its peak. And one group of fellow theatergoers, bless them, burst into loud, spontaneous laughter.

I'm willing to admit that, in the instant before they started laughing, the scene almost tricked me into buying it. Not the High Pathos toward which it clearly reached, but at least the sacred spectacle of the moralism of the abjected body. It's quite nearly a powerful image on its own, almost capable of instrumentalizing the social semiotics to appeal to the conscience in a way that forces the viewer into an ethical relation to the film. Which is deeply bullshit, given that the ethics of the film are basically "no, but, intent!" It presents you with the broken body of a young boy exclusively so that you will sympathize with Wiggin, and how bad he feels about his mistake. It is the spectacle of a dead (or near dead) child that forgives the structures of power that created these conditions without a thought, instead focusing on the bullshit moral quandary of whether a kid whose entire philosophy is to beat the motherfuckers bad enough that they won't (and can't) come back a second time, a philosophy which is explicitly echoed by the brass that form the systemic apparatus that glorifies him, really meant it. That laughter was a glorious fuck you to the miserable bullshit of Ender's Game, to all of its circuitous self-justifications, to every moment of regressive pop psychology that structures every action in the story. I loved it.

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