Saturday, May 10, 2014
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian: "Stalker from the Stars" (December 6, 1980)
In “Stalker from the Stars,” Thundarr and Ariel seek help for Ookla the Mok, who is suffering from a terrible cold. His friends take him to a village built on the ruins of a pre-holocaust amusement park, and soon find the kindly humanoids there in mortal danger.
Specifically, an alien vampire creature has arrived on Earth and is cocooning the unsuspecting humans of the village, and keeping them as food for his long journey between stars.
When Ariel is cocooned and captured, Thundarr must rescue her before the creature leaves the planet for good.
Perhaps more than any episode since “Island of the Body Snatchers,” “Stalker from the Stars” expresses best the reasons why I love and admire Thundarr: The Barbarian (1980 – 1982).
Specifically, this (very good) episode highlights the brilliant and imaginative visuals I love to discuss in these reviews, but also a distinct horror vibe. There are aspects of this episode that are, simply, terrifying. I appreciate that in my Saturday morning entertainment. We forget it sometimes, but kids like a good scare now and again. A little terror is good for the soul.
Here, hapless, defenseless humans are under siege from an alien carnivore and vampire of insect-like shape. This monstrous creature bursts out of walls, mirrors and floors to capture his unsuspecting prey, and then cocoons them to keep as food. He carries them to a chamber on his organic-looking spaceship -- the equivalent of a meat freezer -- for his long journey to another world.
All this material is creepy enough on its own, but “Stalker from the Stars” sets all the action at a ruined, 2000-year old amusement park. This setting reminds us of a happy place, but the events here are dark through and through. Thundarr, for instance, terms the “The Tunnel of Love” an “evil and dark place.” That’s a wickedly funny description that suggests the writers and artists on the series were having a lot of fun with the 1980s apocalypse mentality.
In short order in “Stalker from the Stars,” humans are abducted at merry-go-rounds, a shooting gallery, and more “fun” locales. Mok is attacked in a Hall of Mirrors, and Thundarr engages the space creature on a roller coaster ride, the Cyclone.
“Stalker from the Stars” would seem a great deal more pedestrian sans its unusual setting of a post-apocalyptic amusement park in ruins.
And since the episode establishes that the roller-coaster ride is called the Cyclone, we can assume that this adventure occurs in the ruins of Coney Island.
Aliens don’t often (if ever…) appear in Thundarr episodes, a fact which alone distinguishes this episode from its brethren.
But once more, I love Thundarr the Barbarian’s dark, beating heart, which boasts the audacity to turn places of fun -- casinos, playgrounds and now an amusement park -- into terrifying and monstrous locales.
The subversive idea is that when the world ends, we will go with it, but our “happy” artifacts will remain behind to – vacantly --dot the landscape, and baffle whatever “creatures” should inherit the Earth.
In “The Ringmaster,” Frank’N’Stein (Michael Lane) wants to visit the circus while it is in town, but Walt (Fred Grandy) learns that a terrible crime is in the offing there.
The evil Ringmaster (Billy Curtis) and his sidekicks, Sam Strongman (H.B. Haggerty) and Bonnie Bon (Simone Griffeth) have captured 20,000 orphans attending the circus, and are holding them hostage for ten thousand dollars apiece.
If the city doesn’t pay up, the Ringmaster plans to poison the children with “stupid gas,” transforming even the smartest kids into “dumb dumbs.”
Dressed up as clowns, Walt and the Monster Squad infiltrate the circus and confront the Ringmaster, but Drac, Frank, and the Wolf Man (Buck Kartalian) are captured and put into a jail cage with a lion.
Unless they can tame the lion, the stupid gas will activate and a generation will succumb to utter stupidity…
More high-camp hijinks are afoot in “The Ringmaster,” as the gang of monsters and Walt confront a villain with “stupid gas,” “the wheel of misfortune,” and other menaces at an arena called “Madison Round Garden.”
As before, the format of Monster Squad deliberately and relentlessly apes Batman (1966 – 1969), and all the laughs -- and props -- are cheap ones. The episode also borders on bad taste with the presence of Bonnie Bon, an obese woman constantly seen eating food -- messily -- including chocolate bars, ice cream, and, suggestively, a banana.
As is par for the course, the villain’s plan doesn’t make much sense. The Ringmaster plans to ransom 20,000 orphans for ten thousand a piece (or 200 million, total…) so that he can buy up and then close-down all the toy stores in the country. His motivation to do so stems from his hatred of all children after years spent performing for the little brats.
As for the Monster Squad -- here termed the “Quixotic Quartet” -- it tangles with a very sedate-looking lion in this episode, and the confrontation with the Ringmaster ends in what appears to be a glitter-filled pillow fight. The Ringmaster is defeated when Drac jams a tuba over his head.
Other than all these bizarre touches, there isn’t much else to talk about here, except the notion that high camp, vetted poorly, is often excruciating to watch, and ultimately turns every effort -- including good performances -- to shit.
In the end of “The Ringmaster,” Frank’N’Stein is exposed to the stupid gas and he becomes brilliant. One can only hope that the kids exposed to Monster Squad in 1976 ended up the same way
And seriously, I loved this show as a kid, and was heart-broken when it was canceled.
And seriously, I loved this show as a kid, and was heart-broken when it was canceled.
Next week: "The Music Man"
Friday, May 09, 2014
To celebrate the upcoming release of Godzilla (2014), I'll be spending next Monday-through-Friday gazing at the films, toys and other historical artifacts of the giant atomic lizard.
I grew up with Godzilla, starting when I was five years old, and I've always loved the Big Green Guy and his films, so I welcome this opportunity to look back at some of his greatest adventures.
I hope you'll join me for the party!
In the year 1987, Timothy Dalton replaced Roger Moore as Agent 007 -- James Bond -- in the 16th official Bond film, The Living Daylights.
Love him or hate him, Moore had successfully defined and embodied the beloved silver screen character for fifteen years, since his debut in Live and Let Die in 1972, and for the Star Wars generation as well.
Moore’s last film, A View to a Kill (1985) was not particularly well-received, however, and that effort was also the only one, perhaps, in which the suave Moore really showed his age. He was nearly sixty years old when he left the iconic role.
For the (ultimately abbreviated…) Timothy Dalton Era of the Bond film, therefore, an opportunity arose to re-imagine Bond for the first time in a decade-and-a-half, and to infuse the aging film franchise with a few key qualities including youth, vigor, and not unimportantly, a stronger sense of reality or grounding.
When gazing back at The Living Daylights today, one can see all these virtues right up there on the screen.
The impressive pre-title action sequence stresses Dalton’s youthful physicality and deadpan demeanor. At the same time, the series’ familiar sense of tongue-in-cheek humor is greatly reduced. And finally, this new iteration of Bond seems edgier than his predecessors and perhaps he even qualifies as self-destructive on some psychological level.
On top of all those qualities, the film’s troika of villains is grounded in a reality-based plan to get rich rather than far-fetched, fantasy scenarios about conquering the world, or sinking American cities during artificial earthquakes.
The re-grounding of James Bond -- a phenomenon which occurs approximately once a decade or so, by my reckoning (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), For Your Eyes Only (1981), The Living Daylights (1987), and Casino Royale ) -- had begun in earnest…again.
Although there are some aspects of The Living Daylights that don’t necessarily hold up very well today, including Kara Milovy’s (Maryam D’Abo) ditsy or airhead nature, the film nonetheless remains impressive due in large part to Dalton’s commanding screen presence.
As Bond, he is characterized by an almost wolf-like demeanor and a coiled sense of…uncomfortable energy. There’s a dark, self-hating, almost rage-fueled Bond boiling under the surface here, and Dalton’s approach is a welcome, serious, and original reading of the character for the screen.
Also, as I’ve noted before, Dalton’s focus on a more realistic, fallible Bond certainly pioneered the path later tread by (the excellent) Daniel Craig. The follow-up Bond, Licence to Kill (1989) is a more complete and thorough excavation of Dalton’s Bond and his particular demons, but The Living Daylights remains a strong debut, and certainly one of the stronger Bond films of the 1980s and 1990s.
In particular, The Living Daylights explores an idea that few other Bond films really get to mine. And that is, specifically, that Bond is a man who grievously dislikes his job, and who, when called upon to do horrible things (like assassinate someone) depends on his instincts and sense of total professionalism…a code of ethics
This is a perspective we have not really seen so fully before, or since, The Living Daylights.
“I only kill professionals.”
After surviving a training-incident-turned assassination attempt at Gibraltar, James Bond, 007 (Dalton) is ordered to assassinate a sniper in Bratislava, one targeting an important defector, General Georgi Koskov (Joroen Krabbe).
When Bond sees that the sniper is a civilian woman, a cellist named Kara Milovy (D’Abo), he realizes there is more going on here than he suspects. He disobeys orders and allows Kara to survive, merely shooting the rifle from her hand.
Once back in England, Koskov explain to M (Robert Brown) that he defected to the West because General Gogol’s replacement, Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) has re-activated a Stalin Era protocol called “Smiert Spionam,” or “Death to Spies.”
What this means in practice is that KGB spies are out in the world killing British and American spies, and Bond himself is on Pushkin’s list. Apparently, the general has gone mad…
When the Soviet Union re-captures Koskov, M. orders Bond to assassinate Pushkin.
Because he knows Pushkin, Bond is reluctant to believe Koskov’s story of Pushkin’s insane, blood-thirsty plot. Bond accepts his orders, but first seeks to investigate Kara Milovy further. He discovers that she is Koskov’s lover, and may know what secret motives have compelled him to fashion his tale of “death to spies.”
While Bond helps Kara defect to Vienna, General Pushkin confronts an American arms dealer, Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) about a deal Koskov made with him. Pushkin cancels the deal, which is worth half-a-billion dollars, angering Whitaker.
Koskov convinces Whitaker, however, that another assassination is necessary to convince Bond to assassinate Pushkin. To prod Bond to act, Koskov’s right-hand man, Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) kills one of Bond’s allies, the stuffy Saunders.
Enraged over Saunders’ death, Bond heads to Tangier to assassinate General Pushkin.
But something inside him -- an instinct -- still tells him that this action is wrong…
“If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.”
For the first three-and-a-half minutes or so, The Living Daylights doesn’t reveal the new James Bond’s face.
Instead, we see our new 007 only from the back, as M addresses three double-o agents in the lead-up to a training game. Then, we see Bond, again -- almost anonymous in persona -- skydiving to Gibraltar for a military exercise designed to test radar installations.
When we finally see Bond’s face for the first time, a youthful, saturnine Timothy Dalton whips his head around in a flurry, towards the camera. Bond sees a man plummeting to his death…and he scowls.
This scowl is not an expression of surprise or anger, significantly, but of grim acceptance. This is Bond’s life. Something is wrong, and he must address it. You can almost see a filter of sorts pass over Dalton’s piercing eyes as Bond seems to come to focus, as something inside Bond changes.
This moment tells one an awful lot about the “new” 007. He is not a suave or slick operator, hovering above the action and commenting humorously on it. Instead, he is decidedly in the game, not above it.
The remainder of the pre-title action sequence stresses Bond running, vaulting (onto the top of a speeding jeep and onto the deck of a yacht…), and even head-butting. We see Bond -- Dalton -- engaging in these dramatic actions, in wide and long establishing shots, heightening the sense that he, not a stuntman, is involved.
The overpowering impression here is of a man with a certain heightened level of physical prowess, a level not really seen since the Sean Connery glory days. I can’t be a hundred percent certain without re-watching the films in question, but I’m relatively sure that Roger Moore’s Bond never head-butted an opponent at close quarters.
Then, the pre-title’s final punctuation is a real kicker. Dalton throws away -- without looking back – the line that audiences have been waiting -- dying -- to hear him speak. He announces his iconic name, “Bond, James Bond,” yet does so in curt, concise fashion. He says the words at quite a clip, and then is immediately back to business.
The message conveyed by Dalton’s choice is simply that this Bond is not about ceremony or heightening an artificial moment that is, in the final analysis, outside of the character’s reality. Instead, he is in the moment.
In terms of the film’s action, on a whole it plays as more suspenseful than many moments in the previous films if only because everything possible has been done to make the action feel grounded or real. The film’s confidence is such that it even features great action when Bond isn’t present. There’s a knock-down, drag-out fight set in the safe house kitchen between Necros and another British agent that is brutal, gory and bloody well-choreographed. It feels like something from the era of From Russia with Love, not the more recent Bonds.
And again, the focus on a wider tapestry enhances The Living Daylights’ sense of reality. James Bond is a man, not a superhero, and we don’t need to see him in every single action scene. The story moves very well, thank you, when other characters are also competently drawn and developed.
As The Living Daylights progresses, it also worth noting that see Dalton’s Bond smoking cigarettes on at least two occasions (in Q’s work area, and during Koskov’s briefing at the safe house).
Once again, it has been a long time since we’ve seen Bond smoke on screen, and by the year 1987 smoking was certainly well-known as more than a vice…but as a dangerous addiction. The mere fact that this Bond -- in the latter-half of the 1980s -- was taking such a risk to his health and well-being seems to state something crucial about his personality, and his appetite for both: a.) danger, and b.) self-destruction. The Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels smoked all the time, of course, and it is well-known that Dalton actively sought a return to the literary aesthetic in his portrayals. While smoking cigarettes may be dismissed as an easy affectation, trenchant visuals can make or break a movie, or a portrayal. Dalton’s choice to play a smoking Bond (and not one operating in the 1960s, like Connery’s incarnation…) speaks volumes about the man, and is thus a great and effective short-hand. A smoking Bond conveys immediately, something that is between-the-lines about this man. He’s not a wholesome “good guy.”
He’s got demons.
In fact, Dalton’s Bond also comes across as grumpy and curt at times in The Living Daylights, a demeanor we can explain by his dislike of the job -- of having to kill people, essentially, on the command of a superior. When Saunders threatens to inform M that Bond deliberately botched the sniper mission, Bond snaps at him. He’ll thank M if he fires him. “Stuff orders!” he growls.
The same leitmotif arises involving Pushkin. The death of Saunders enrages Bond and makes him doubt his instincts. M, by contrast, is completely cowed, and orders Pushkin’s assassination, despite the fact that Koskov is obviously up to something.
When Bond refuses to kill without question, M threatens to replace him with 004, an agent who obeys orders, “not instincts.” Bond relents and agrees to assassinate the Russian, in part, it seems, because he feels he owes Pushkin a professional courtesy. If Pushkin is to die, then it should be at the hands of an agent who already knows him…and has respected him.
The point here is merely that The Living Daylights establishes two facts about Bond very adeptly.
The first is one that is not immediately apparent from the Roger Moore Era: Bond is a hired killer.
The second fact (also not apparent in that span), is that Bond doesn’t very much like that description, and so he erects a kind of personal code around his professional behavior. We see it in his insistence to kill Pushkin himself. We also see it in his assertion of morality to Saunders that he only “kills professionals.”
A Bond who hates his work (and perhaps himself for doing it) and who is self-destructive enough to smoke and actively disobey orders would not make much sense in a comic-book world, and so The Living Daylights provides him with opponents who are more grounded in reality than the Aryan superman Zorin (A View to A Kill), or the maniacal megalomaniacs of Moonraker (1979) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
There are many qualities of the Timothy Dalton Era that are noteworthy, but one that is not often commented upon is the fact that the villains in both his films are pulled straight from the headlines. Licence to Kill’s Sanchez (still the second greatest villain in the entire franchise behind Goldfinger, if you ask me…) is Pablo Escobar, of course. And the villains in The Living Daylights are running a variation of the Iran-Contra Scandal that sullied and nearly destroyed President Reagan’s second term.
Accordingly, Whitaker is pretty clearly modeled on Colonel Oliver North, a man who paradoxically considered himself an extreme patriot even as he shredded White House documents, lied to Congress, and accepted $14,000 dollars from an Iran-Contra arms profiteer (“Oliver North, Fortunate Felon,” The New York Times, July 6, 1989). Whitaker, like North, is a man of pretensions. He “plays” at being a soldier and loving the military. But he’s actually a rampant narcissist, and in the game for wealth, and self-glorification.
Necros provides the physical menace in the film, whereas Whitaker and Koskov are the “general” villains, but together they pack a punch, and reflect some sense of the real world.
There are some miscues in The Living Daylights, to be certain. Milovy comes across as cheerily dimwitted at times (especially when she can’t figure out that Bond is telling her to drive a jeep into the back of the plane), and the joke about Afghani freedom fighters getting stopped at the airport is a groaner, considering everything that has happened in the world since 1989.
But overall, Timothy Dalton’s debut is a terrific entry in the Bond franchise, one that re-invigorated the movie series and pointed to a new future and a new direction for 007. In 1987 -- and today -- this movie thrilled “the living daylights” out of a generation seeking a smart re-invention of a beloved legend.
Thursday, May 08, 2014
My newest article at Anorak obsesses on one of my favorite directors: Brian De Palma. Specifically, I gaze at five great but highly underrated thrillers from the director of such favorites as Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and The Untouchables (1987).
In "The Five Most Underrated Brian De Palma Thrillers" I tally some of the great productions that aren't as popular as those listed above, but which nonetheless reveal the director's penchant for tricky narratives, and masterful visualizations.
Here's a snippet:
"Since the early 1970s, director Brian De Palma has crafted many intense and highly cerebral thrillers.
Alas, such efforts are often dismissed by critics as being overly imitative of Alfred Hitchcock’s films and style rather than praised for their own finely-developed sense of intertextuality and intellectual gamesmanship.
In short, De Palma is much more than either “The New Hitchcock” or -- as he is sometimes known -- “The American Godard.” Instead, this uber-formalist is a deeply film-literate director who mines the visual canon of established masters (including Kubrick, Eisenstein and Antonioni) and co-opts their most famous imagery for new, and often highly imaginative purposes.
Although the artist is often tagged for perceived misogyny in his violent thrillers, De Palma’s best thrillers merge social commentary (often encoded in the visuals) and a critique of the medium of film itself, a technological art form which, in De Palma’s lexicon “lies” 24 frames-a-second.
What many critics detect as “voyeurism” is actually an exploration, instead, of the way that film allows us to see, experience, and interpret a narrative, or perhaps competing narratives.
In De Palma’s work, seeing and “knowing” are often two vastly different things, and sight and knowledge are frequently confused by the protagonists. We see this duality explored in many acknowledged and well-received De Palma thrillers, including Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), but also in the films that have not been as warmly welcomed.
With that description in mind, here my five selections for the most underrated De Palma thrillers."
The film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (2013) attracted some strong criticism last year around the time of its theatrical release, up to and including the threat of a boycott.
The criticism was political in nature, and had everything to do with the book’s author and his personal history of making unfortunate statements. The criticism had very little to do with the nature or specifics of the movie, or apparently the Ender’s Game narrative itself.
I don’t seek or desire to re-litigate the unfortunate matter here, but Ender’s Game is so good, and so valuable a science fiction epic that, if necessary, one might resort to the “separate the art from the artist” defense…at least if that helps fence-sitters give the film a chance.
That’s what I did, and I’m glad I threaded that particular needle.
In short, Ender’s Game is a science fiction spectacular that seems relevant right now, at this point in our history. By my tally, it is now the second big genre film (after Star Trek: Into Darkness ) to attempt to exorcise America’s worst demons of the War on Terror Age..
Specifically, Ender’s Game concerns the idea that you don’t beat your enemy by lowering yourself to your enemy’s level or standards.
On the contrary, you defeat your enemy -- and perhaps even turn him into an eventual ally -- by holding fast to the time-tested values you already hold dear.
You “win” by staying true to yourself.
Appropriately, Ender’s Game makes a difficult, cerebral, and worthwhile point: Even those who have been -- objectively -- wronged by another person or force shall be judged by history in part by their response to that wrong.
To approximate the film’s stance, a poor response becomes a burden, an albatross, a “shame” that people will have to “bear,” perhaps “forever.” Thus the film believes that even the most heinous wrong -- a surprise attack, for instance -- deserves a measured, thoughtful, proportional answer.
Otherwise, we risk becoming as bad (and lawless…) as those who attacked us in the first place.
Given the film’s clever and timely expression of this theme, Ender’s Game is strongly anti-war in tenor, and it expresses that viewpoint in quite a different style from another, equally powerful man-vs.-bugs space epic of the same bent: Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997).
I also noted in Ender’s Game some ideas that are very much like those dramatized in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). Like that Oscar winner, Ender’s Game is also a movie about a boy soldier whose identity is apparently up for grabs, and thus two sides wage war over it.
One side is brutal and violent, and the other is compassionate and thoughtful. The boy, ultimately, must choose what kind of man he is going to be, and which spiritual “father” or “mother” he will follow.
At the heart of Ender’s Game is one simple question: do we follow the better angels of our nature during the bad times, or do we allow our worst instincts to carry the day…to our everlasting shame?
“We don’t really understand our enemy.”
Half-a-century ago, a race of alien insectoids called the Formix launched a surprise attack on Earth in an attempt to colonize our planet.
The invaders were barely defeated, and only by the clever, unconventional tactics of a soldier named Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley).
Now, the Earth’s military-industrial complex is paranoid, and obsessed with forestalling another attack, despite the fact that the Formix have never returned.
In particular, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) ruthlessly trains children as soldiers at Battle School because they are “intuitive” and “decisive,” and therefore hold the key to another victory. Graff is teamed with a psychologist named Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), who polices him to make certain he doesn’t go too far in his sculpting of children into warriors.
One such new recruit is sensitive Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterworth). He is a third child, and both of his older siblings washed out at the same school. His older brother Peter (Jim Pinchak), a bully, failed because he was too violent. His sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin) failed because she showed too much compassion.
Though Graff takes steps to isolate Ender and make the other trainees resent him, the intuitive, thoughtful boy soon charts his own path toward leadership, and eventually becomes the planet Earth’s best hope to defeat the Formix.
Soon, Graff is trained by Rackham himself on a former Formix colony world. All Ender has to do to succeed now is play one final war scenario simulation along with his hand-picked team of misfits and outsiders…
“I still know nothing about my enemy.”
In Ender’s Game’s first act, there are many visual and narrative signs that the beleaguered Earth has lapsed into a permanent culture of fear, militarism, and even fascism.
For instance, Earth’s children are systematically indoctrinated into hatred for the Formix through many auspices including propaganda posters that read “We Remember. Never Again.” and “One World. One Peace.”
Yet, on a basic level, the children don’t remember. They weren’t even alive when the Formix attack occurred. They are expected to fight the war nonetheless.
Military cadets are also under surveillance at all times by their superiors -- a tell-tale sign of a totalitarian state -- courtesy of monitor implants on the back of their necks.
The reach of the military industrial complex is so great that it can even insert itself into family matters and personal decisions. At one point, Graff tells Ender that the fleet “owns you.”
Similarly, Cadets are imbued, at an early age, with a sense of heroic purpose and destiny, a common factor in fascist societies. “It’s what I was born for, right?” Ender says of his destiny to totally annihilate the Formix.
This too is what he has been conditioned to believe.
As the movie commenced I wondered if Ender’s Game would meaningfully address this pervasive culture of fear and militarism, and I began thinking of Starship Troopers. That Verhoeven film utilized mock-propaganda “news reels” to satirize nationalism and imperialism, and a close reading of the film -- from the military uniforms to some of dialogue -- reveals that, in fact, that the human “heroes” in the film are not unlike the Nazis.
To my delight, Ender’s Game criticizes the fascist world view, but in an all-together different way. The tone here is not humorous, satirical or mocking, but simply earnest. One gets the impression while watching the film that people have been afraid of another attack for so long that they don’t even realize how much freedom they have lost in the meantime. It takes the non-sullied viewpoint of a child, essentially, to point it out.
At one point in the story, Ender notes that neither he nor the military really “understand” the enemy. Because of this lack of understanding, the military will not allow itself to consider an important option.
Perhaps the Formix will not attack again at all. Perhaps the war is over…forever.
But this is a message that the fearful defenders of Earth simply cannot hear. “Their very existence is a threat” Graff insists. Furthermore, he tries to put an idealistic spin on his pursuit of an enemy that has not attacked in half-a-century. “The purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars,” he tells Ender.
Because of Earth’s rampant and irrational fear about another attack, reason can no longer gain traction in Graff’s mind. Ender wonders why communication hasn’t been attempted with the aliens, why humans don’t attempt to “think” to the Formix, but he gets no meaningful answer.
When one thinks about it, if you know “nothing” of your enemy…then you don’t even know for sure if your enemy is still an enemy at all.
Ultimately, Ender is tricked by Graff and the military into committing genocide, the total and complete annihilation of a race of sentient beings. When he protests about his mistreatment and the mass murder of the Formix, he is told: “We won. That’s all that matters.”
And at this point, the movie reaches its key point. “The way we win matters,” Ender replies.
Those are words that we didn’t hear enough in the decade of Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, and the Patriot Act, I’m afraid.
Ender can so readily understand this notion, perhaps, because he is always being torn between two sides, and thus must navigate between them. In the film, he actually has two sets of role-models, one adult, and one child, and to find his own way, he must not merely “win” but win in a fashion that brings him the end he desires, and which maintains his family.
His two spiritual “parents” of the adult mode are Graff and Anderson.
Graff doesn’t care about feelings or friendship, or cooperation. He just cares about the competition, about carrying the day. Graff likes Ender because he knows Ender thinks tactically. And in this case, thinking tactically means erasing a future threat…even if it has not yet materialized as a real threat.
This is an appealing viewpoint to Ender because he has been bullied at school and also at home. He doesn’t want to live in fear of another incident, and to end that fear, he has to end not the threat, but the possibility of a threat.
Yet as we see in the film’s conclusion, when you eliminate a possible threat you also, finally, eliminate a possible ally.
And really, can a human being ever kill an amorphous fear that is based on ignorance or a lack of information?
By pointed contrast, Anderson worries about Ender’s mental health, and wants him to be healthy, the brand of leader with the moral authority and stability to lead wisely. Anderson’s computer game tests Ender, but also shows him that life is not as easy as choosing between Option A and Option B. Sometimes, a third option must be “imagined,” and imagination can only stem from empathy, from knowing your enemy.
This dynamic is echoed very strongly in Ender’s own family. His brother Peter is the Graff surrogate, one who acts as though might makes right. His sister, Valentine, is empathetic and compassionate.
In both cases, Ender is in the middle, and therefore forced to find a “third way” that takes into account both influences.
In Platoon, a soldier in Vietnam named Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, also had to choose a path between two philosophies. He had to choose between spiritual fathers in the form of Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).
They too held diametrically opposed views about life and death, and the way in which to prosecute a war. Ender’s plight echoes Taylor’s because the one thing no child ever wants to do is let down or otherwise disappoint a parent. Ender wants to do the right thing, but he also wants to please Graff.
Ultimately, however, he finds that he outgrows Graff’s narrow (and implacably hostile…) world view, and dedicates his life to a cause Graff could never accept: helping the enemy re-establish itself.
Beyond its leitmotif that “the way we win matters,” I appreciate that Ender’s Game also examines, head on the way that our culture measures “strength,” particularly as it applies to men, and boys.
Graff seems to think that to be strong, one can’t have friends….only competitors. He also believes that to be strong, one mustn’t “feel” or “empathize” with the enemy.
Yet Ender’s very strength rests in his ability to make friends and convert enemies, and in his desire to understand and empathize with those he opposes. He becomes a leader not by taunting or bullying others (like Peter or Squad Leader Bonzo do), but by welcoming other “misfits” into the fold. The compassion that Graff derides is actually the key to Ender’s success.
Ender’s Game thus stresses the idea that rigid “certainty” is not necessarily a sign of strength…but a moral and personal failing. Ender constantly seeks to adapt to new situations, and learn new information so he can make the right decision. There is nothing closed-off, locked-down or certain about him. Accordingly, all options remain open to him. Too often in the world today, these character qualities are considered weaknesses. But in reality, changing your mind is not a sign of weakness, but a symptom of the adaptability required to navigate new challenges, or incorporate new data into one’s world view.
In Hollywood, as in Battle Command School, “the pressure to win is intense,” and it appears that Ender’s Game was only a modest success at the box office. This probably means no further films are forthcoming in the franchise. Although that news is disappointing, Ender’s Game resolutely delivers all the points its makers hoped to make. It does so with some terrific special effects, and with remarkable performances, particularly from Harrison Ford and Asa Butterworth.
So the box office might be “MISSION FAIL,” but in terms of art, Ender’s Game provides much food for thought, and t even enunciates a point-of-view relevant to the Zeitgeist.