Since we last checked in on the Ender’s Game, due November 1, there’s been a lot to talk about. Like many blockbusters these days, Ender’s Game has been marketed across all conceivable platforms. There’s been of course the usual – trailers and posters. There’s been Comic-Con appearances. Social media. And of course, a number of different websites. On top of all of of that, there’s been some controversy as well. Today, I want to look at what the marketing campaign and “buzz” can tell us about the movie itself, the larger storytelling project, and the movie-making industry.
Web Marketing: Now without nuance!
First, I want to talk about all of the non-traditional marketing campaigns that Ender’s Game has been working. Two primary websites have been set up, and have been hyped through the Ender’s Game Movie official twitter account: if-sentinel.com and if-battleschool.com (which now redirects to the Lionsgate social media page).
I’ll start by just observing that the “IF Sentinel” website is a frustrating blend of diagetic and non-diagetic elements. In certain parts, it’s trying to look like a real-world website for the actual “International Fleet” that features in Ender’s Game. It has “Recruitment Videos” and such that make it look like the real IF website might look. But in others, the website has the actual movie poster and links to the trailer. It can’t quite decide if it wants to be a movie-website or a fake-website. Nothing else really to say about that, but boy does it bug me.
My problem is this: the entire social media campaign thus far has also pretty much entirely straight-faced about the entire war against the Buggers. As I hope we will be able to get into in great detail over the next few months, Ender’s Game is a fairly nuanced book. While the prose is relatively simply, it looks at any number of issues with a critical eye. Most particularly, the book has a lot to say about the military mind and the ethics of a battle fought for life-and-death stakes. And it doesn’t really have any easy answers.
For instance, my copy of Ender’s Game, the mass market paperback, has a review on the front cover that calls the book a “scathing indictment of the military mind.” On the other hand, Ender’s Game regularly features on the Navy and Marine Corps “Professional Reading List” as a useful guide for young leaders. And I’m not sure either one of those things is based on a misinterpretation of the book.
The marketing department for Ender’s Game, on the other hand, sees “Shiny space lasers.” Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to it, but for a book that is deeply committed to examining the moral and social costs of a war for survival, the marketing campaign seems to take the argument for the war at face value: there’s no sign whatsoever that the campaign is “in” on the joke. Take the following “infographic” from the IF-Sentinel website:
In the book, there’s a world-wide ban on people having third children, in order to prevent overpopulation. But as the book unfolds, that policy is far from unquestioned – Ender himself is a Third, and at one point Valentine writes an impassioned screed against the policy. But when it gets to the marketing department, it just becomes propaganda.
Go take a look at this recruitment “videos” created from the website:
Now go take a look at the brilliant and underappreciated “Would you like to know more?” videos from Starship Troopers:
The two bear a striking resemblance – which does not bode well for the Ender’s Game marketing.
For those new to these Overthinking parts, Starship Troopers is NOT, as you’ve been led to believe, a schlocky 90s action movie. OK, it’s not JUST a schlocky 90s action movie. Starship Troopers is ALSO a surprisingly effective screed against the allure of military propaganda – those “Would you like to know more?” videos are SUPPOSED to look facile and silly. We’re supposed to react NEGATIVELY to the heavy-handed attempt to manipulate us. I’m not so sure that the marketing department at Ender’s Game was going for the same effect (and seriously, guys, is this a movie ad or a propaganda movie? Pick a fourth-wall and stick with it).
The book, on the other hand, is much closer to the Starship Troopers movie- just because we’re “rooting” for the guys with the propaganda vids doesn’t mean that we’re not supposed to question it. Both properties hold a mirror up to an Earth that is dominated by a military government combating a distant alien menace and asks: “Is that really what we want? What choices will we be forced to make?” In the unnuanced world of 140 characters and viral marketing, that question becomes “Isn’t this awesome?”
While I’m hoping that the movie will feature some eye-popping action sequences, I will be sorely disappoint if it doesn’t ALSO focus on the complicated ethical and psychological issues at play in the book. For all of these questions, the social-media marketing has essentially substitutes “Explosions and awesomeness!”
Of course, none of this is exactly revelatory. It’s not uncontroversial or novel to point out that Hollywood marketing is tin-eared and scatter-shot on the best of days. The real question is to what extent the marketing reflects what we can expect to see in the movie itself. My sense is that the social-media campaign around a movie is the bottom-rung of the advertising ladder where artistic integrity is concerned. I strongly suspect that the creative minds behind the actual film (Orson Scott Card, Gavin Hood, etc.) had very little to do with the creation or even approval of the website, Facebook campaign, etc.
The trailer, on the other hand, is probably a much better way of telling what the actual movie will be like. If I’m to have any hope that the movie will dive deep into the moral and psychological issues at the heart of Ender’s Game, let’s look to the newest trailer, which hit the web on Tuesday.
While I like to think we were the first to play “Spot the Trailer Trope” with Ender’s Game, this trailer is equally heavy in sci-fi trailer clichés, substituting Inception’s “braaaahm” for some quasi-operatic singing in the background. But what can we tell about the plot of the movie, and how much of the philosopical meat will remain on the bone?
The first thing I’ve noticed about both trailers is the heavy emphasis on the human vs. Bugger battles in space as opposed to the child vs. child Battle School “Games” – without counting, I’d say there is 2 or 3 times as many shots of Ender commanding the Fleet than there is of Ender commanding his Dragon Army. This is a major inversion from the books, where the Battle Room is the centerpiece and driving story device. The space battles get considerable less “page-time,” with large portions of it basically covered in the book equivalent of a montage. While I can see why they choose to use the flashy pew-pew of a space battle in the trailer, I’m REALLY hoping that the Battle Room is still front and center, because it’s what makes Ender’s Game not just Another Damned Space Movie.
With that in mind, I’m worried about the notable absence of one character in the trailer and marketing of the film: Bonzo Madrid and the other bullies of Battle School. Without spoiling too much, Ender faces threats that are much closer to home than just the aliens. His escalating conflict with one of the other boys at Battle School culminates in what is arguably the emotional and psychological core of the story. The character of Bonzo requires Graff and Ender to make choices that are crucial to the moral project of the entire book – Ender’s Game just doesn’t work without Bonzo, and it DEFINITELY doesn’t work with the Battle Room.
This goes hand-in-hand with what I was talking about earlier – that the movie, at least based on what we’ve seen so far, seems almost entirely unwilling to accept that the military fighting the Buggers might NOT be perfectly moral/ethical beings; that the choices that have to be made to win such a war might have horrible consequences. At the very least, we should be taking the justifications given by Graff, Mazer and even Ender with a grain of salt. This was almost completely lacking from the first trailer, and in the first minute or so of this most recent trailer (which says, in I think 5 DIFFERENT ways, that Ender is “The One.”
This second trailer, or at least the second minute of it, starts to introduce the idea that maybe what’s being done to and by Ender isn’t the best:
Mazer: “You should tell him the truth.”
Mazer: “He’s abandoning his fleet.”
Graff: “He’s in command.”
Anderson: “What will be left of the boy?”
Graff: “Who cares, if nothing is left.”
I like those quotes because they illustrate that there’s going to be a moral cost in fighting the war. Lies will be told, fleets will be abandoned and this “boy” is going to be damaged by what he has to do. All in service of the war against the Buggers. This is one of the central themes of the book and I’m glad to see it rearing it’s head a little bit in the trailers – even if it’s mostly surrounded by lens flares and explosions.
I’ll finish by observing that the scale of the marketing campaign has come (to me, at least) as something of a surprise, based on both the release date and the nature of the franchise. First of all, Ender’s Game is being released November 1 – while not exactly a dumping ground for movies, that time of year is obviously well outside the summer blockbuster season while still being too early to position itself for the Christmas rush.
Additionally, it’s being released a mere three weeks before Lionsgate’s OTHER major kids-killing-other-kids property, The Hunger Games. One would think that the studio would want to avoid cannibalization between the two properties, but there must be synergies or other considerations I don’t appreciate here.
More importantly, I’m surprised that Ender’s Game, regardless of release date, is getting as much up-front investment as it has. For a property like The Avengers, with a virtually unlimited pool of stories to tell, or even like The Hunger Games, which will ultimately be four movies, marketing for the FIRST film pays for itself over a much longer period – an ad that tips the scale and gets a person to see Hunger Games 1 goes a long way towards getting them to also shell out for Hunger Games 2-4.
Ender’s Game, to put it lightly, has a sequel problem. While the “Ender-verse” is relatively massive with more than a dozen novels, many of them are outright un-filmable. For those not familiar, the “primary” sequels in the Speaker for the Dead trilogy are completely different from Ender’s Game, losing the Battle School entirely and choosing instead to consist mostly of people taking to each other and discovering the deep philosophical truths about a new species of alien life. There are no lasers, no space battles, etc.
The other “Trilogy” of sequels takes place on Earth after the end of Ender’s Game – and consists of a massive world-spanning war which features Russia, India, China and Muslim world invading each other and being invaded in turn. I find it difficult to imagine that going very far in the modern era of movies, where foreign-market appeal is every bit as important as the domestic one.
The only “sequel” that even HAS a space battle in it is Ender’s Shadow, which takes place over the same period of time as Ender’s Game. ES is a “parallel novel” that tells the same story but from the perspective of one of Ender’s friends, Bean. Again, I would love to see an Ender’s Shadow movie, but I’ve yet to see Bean even mentioned in the promotional materials, so it strikes me as unlikely any one is planning on an Ender’s Shadow sequel.
So all that is a long way of saying I’m surprised at the level of investment in building Ender’s Game as a franchise – even if Ender’s Game is massively successful, it’s still only ONE massively successful movie. Of course, none of this is a COMPLAINT that Ender’s Game is getting the love from Lionsgate’s marketing department, and I don’t make or finance movies for a living, so maybe there’s something I’m not seeing here.
One final note – there’s been some controversy over Orson Scott Card’s views over homosexuality. Suffice to say that discussing gay marriage is way, way outside my mandate in this article and Overthinking It’s mandate generally. I may have some things to say later about the broader questions of authorial intent, the death of the author, etc. For now, I’ll just note that I strongly disagree with Mr. Card on any number of political issues, including his views on homosexuality and gay marriage, but feel comfortable enjoying his works of fiction.
In the meantime, stay tuned, we (Ok, I) will be rolling out a lot of analysis and commentary as we get closer to November 1.