A quartet of journalists spontaneously gathered in a theater lobby after screening Ender’s Game, which opens Nov. 1.
It was a provocative film that begged post-game analysis. Based on the 1985 Nebula and Hugo Award-winning military science fiction novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card, the $110 million film–starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford–chronicles a brilliant teenage cadet whose gaming acumen positions him to lead a space brigade against an alien foe. Along the way, it raises timely issues of bullying, winning at any cost, and whether simulated battles detach operators from grasping real collateral damage. Finally, one reporter addressed the elephant in the room.
“It was a really good movie,” he said. “Too bad Orson Scott Card is such a homophobe.”
At what point do you separate the art from the artist?
For months, Card’s views on homosexuality and campaign against same-sex marriage has dogged the film. His views overshadowed the film’s San Diego Comic-Con panel; gay activists called for a boycott; journalists speculated on the film’s chance of success. Card, meanwhile, has been noticeably absent from press events. The ordeal has frustrated studio Lionsgate, which hopes for a franchise, its producers–including Roberto Orci and Gigi Pritzker, who had spent a dozen years shepherding the project–and director Gavin Hood, who began his directing career making educational films about HIV/AIDS awareness in his native South Africa, while its government denied the pandemic.
“This is a real issue for me. This is not, for me, something that is about strategy or damage control,” says Hood, who is also a member of Courage Campaign. (The human rights initiative recently honored the same-sex couples who initiated the lawsuit against California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in June.) “My views were well-known to the studio, and they are the polar opposite of Orson’s, and have been for decades.”
And so, while crafting the script, Hood–an Academy Award winner for his 2005 foreign language feature Tsotsi–found himself at a crossroads: make a film about a book whose themes so resonated with him, or abandon it in light of its author’s beliefs.
“When I became aware of Orson’s views, I was writing the script, and had a moment where I went to my wife and said, “I’m a little freaked out,’” he says. “’I believe that the book’–and now the film–‘speaks to themes of compassion, tolerance, and understanding of the other. So much so, that it’s about understanding an alien species from another planet.’”
“Those were the themes and ideas that I fell in love with, that rang profoundly true to me, as someone who’d been in the military, and ones I wanted to explore in the film,” he says. “So I do find it distressing that the author of this book that I love seems to not support ideas of compassion with this particular issue.
“But art frequently–in fact, usually–rises above the failings of its creators,” Hood adds. “And the author is saying things on the issue of gay marriage that have nothing to do with our movie. I thought, ‘If I chuck this now, he’s won.’ I like his art. I’ll be damned if I can’t support his art even though the artist is someone I disagree with on a particular issue. That has nothing to do with the art that I’m exploring right now.”
In the film, Hood uses subliminal cues to emphasize the disconnect with that other–the insect-like Formics–and Ender’s attempts to understand them.
“We started with ant colonies for the Formics,” says Hood. “The concept was, they built everything organically–there’s flow, no visible joining. We tried to design a technology that would feel like it had a cohesive organic feel, but, ultimately, is beyond us.”
By comparison, human architecture extrapolated from current astronautical design, drawing attention to military austerity with glass and steel spacecraft bolted together in modules. “The International Space Station is built with modular panels, so we took inspiration from the way real space structures are built,” says Hood. “The military is very rigid. Each corridor or bunk is a replica of another bunk. Everything is bolted on, which is slightly brutal.”
One of the more complex visual effects involved swarming formations of alien spaceships, which programmers accomplished by translating bird-flocking movements into mathematical algorithms. “I sat with a genius computer science guy whose sole job was to work out the way those things would happen, in space, with no air,” says Hood. “And then, figure out what happens when you throw a projectile into the midst of that swarm. How does it dissipate and regroup? And how is that going to feel consistent throughout the film?”
The lush visual effects and production values come courtesy of an unusual co-production deal with digital effects house, Digital Domain, that according to the Los Angeles Times, invested $17 million in exchange for a 37% equity stake.
“What’s amazing about movies, especially the way they’re going now, is the level, not just of artistic and design talent, but engineering and mathematical talents,” says Hood. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I realize I’m allowed to orchestrate all these amazing people. It really is quite humbling.’”
The other themes resonating with Hood emanated from his army experience– accountability, understanding violence, and watching increasing societal detachment to it through gaming, drone, and simulation technology.
In 1981, at age 17, Hood was drafted into the South African army, which was assisting the U.S. in Cold War battles over African resources. There, he experienced the same feelings of alienation and enforced aggression he would later read about in Ender’s Game.
“I, fortunately, did not actually take a human life, but it was a little too close for comfort at certain points, and freaked me out very badly,” says Hood. “I lost a friend in Angola. I wasn’t present when he was killed. It upset me enormously, and I was very angry at everybody. It caused me to reflect a great deal on taking responsibility for the way I engaged with the world, and my own country, and I think that’s what politicized me.
“When we recruit young people to the military, as we do in every society, we seduce them with the idea that they’ll be heroic and it’ll be a big adventure,” he says. “They don’t say you might suffer PTSD, lose your legs–or lose a friend. You wouldn’t get anybody in.
“Part of the passage to adulthood is owning the choices that you make,” Hood adds. “That’s the journey that Ender goes on that’s most interesting for me. Hopefully it will generate some kind of conversation about themes exploring one’s capacity for violence, and the way games and reality are starting to merge in uncomfortable ways. I hope that the film says to young people, “Hey, this looks like fun–shooting, breaking, and blowing things up. But what if it’s real? How do you feel then?’ ”
And so, it is this foundation of experiences that ultimately drove Hood to make the film.
“The ideas of compassion and tolerance are worth putting out into the world,” says Hood. “And ironically, the opposite views that Orson holds now actually contribute to the debate. If I hadn’t made the film, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. So it kind of proves the point, that art actually can rise above the framings of its creators and generate a positive conversation.
“Everyone has to make his own decision about whether they can see art separately from the artist,” he adds. “I think we have to, or we’d have to throw out a lot of art.”