Harrison Ford center stage as ‘Enders Game’ panel can’t avoid controversy

SAN DIEGO – Summit Entertainment’s “Ender’s Game” was the highlight of Thursday’s weak movie panel schedule at Comic-Con 2013, but not for all the reasons the studio hoped for. In theory, the planned showcase should have been a slam dunk, and for the audience it mostly was.

“Ender’s Game” is an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s critically acclaimed sci-fi novel about a talented young boy, Ender (Asa Butterfield), whose strategic gifts are seen as Earth’s last hope against a dangerous alien foe. The film stars movie icon Harrison Ford as Colonel Hyrum Graff, Ender’s teacher at a futuristic battle school, along with Oscar winner Ben Kingsley and former nominees Viola Davis and Hailee Steinfeld. Ford has only appeared on a panel at Comic-Con once before as a surprise guest during Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens” event in 2010, which resulted in a rare Hall H standing ovation that seemed to move the legendary actor to tears.

Director Gavin Hood and producer Roberto Orci brought along new footage that highlighted the tension between Kingsley, Ford and Davis’s characters, as well as a level of special effects many might not have expected based on the film’s early trailers. Throw in crowd-pleasing moderator Chris Hardwicke and you have the formula for a panel that should knock it out of the park. Unfortunately, Card’s personal beliefs have become a distraction to the film’s general marketing and publicity campaign.

Card, who wrote the original novel in 1985, has been an outspoken anti-gay marriage and gay rights advocate, a position that puts him at odds with recent nationwide polling on the issue, not to mention a clear majority of the Hollywood creative community. Summit hoped it would all go away, but the recent Supreme Court ruling on DOMA and Prop. 8 in California put the spotlight back on the film, while Geeks Out announced that they intended to boycott the film. Card did himself and Summit no favors by releasing a statement that was pretty much a backhanded admission that his attempts to stop gay marriage from becoming legal across the country were futile. The studio’s parent company Lionsgate, no doubt trying to calm the fire before the publicity machine ramped up at Comic-Con, released a statement distancing the film from the author and announcing the picture’s premiere would be a benefit for an unspecified LGBT cause.

Traditionally, audience questions are a major part of any Comic-Con panel, but until today many wondered if Summit would even risk someone asking about the Card controversy. Not only did was the issue raised, it was the first question.*

*A peer of mine noted on Twitter that Summit might have planted the question to be able to control the question and response on their own terms. Honestly, I think that’s just a bit too conspiracy theory to me.

Orci spoke for the panel noting, “we decided to use the attention that was on us…to completely and equivocally support Lionsgate-Summit’s statement in defense of LGBT rights as a part of all human rights. A lot of people worked on this movie and a lot more people are working to get this movie out in the market and I would hate to see all the efforts of these people thwarted for the opinions of less than a percentage of the people behind this movie, particularly because the message of the book and the movie is tolerance, compassion…”

“Empathy,” Ford interjected.

“…empathy. All things we hope will live on beyond any statements any of us make,” Orci continued. “So, rather than shy away from any of the controversy, we are happy to actually embrace it and use the spotlight to say we support LGBT rights and human rights.”

Surprisingly, that wasn’t the only political moment of the panel. When asked by Hardwicke why he was drawn to the role, Ford noted, “I was drawn to the complexity of the moral issues here, the questions about the complex moral issues that are involved in the military. This book was written 28 years ago [and] imagined a world which has become an every day reality. The ability to wage war removed from the battlefield is one of the realities of our life now with drone warfare. This was unknown 28 years ago. The issues of the manipulation of young people because of their skills as soldiers, their conceptual freedom, was something that was really complex and interesting to me. I was delighted to be involved with a character that wrestled with these concerns and brought them into public consciousness.”

And in one fell swoop, the themes of Summit’s expected sci-fi blockbuster have now become relevant to the debate on drone warfare. Again, probably not the direction the studio was hoping for with hundreds of members of the press in attendance. Awkwardly, however, the audience brought it back to what they love about Ford: his legacy.

To a roar of laughter from the audience, an attendee asked Ford what would happen if Han Solo and Indiana Jones met in real life. Dumbstruck, Ford responded with, “Hi. How are you?” Cue more laughs from the Hall H crowd.

Another audience member asked Ford an intelligible question about Han Solo. Ford looked at him quizzically and said, “I used to dream about being Indiana Jones when I was younger, too. Not so much anymore.”

Finally, Ford was asked a very specific “Star Wars” mythology question on whether Han Solo would join an unrecognizable character’s army. He paused and then carefully said, “I don’t think Han Solo would be a good soldier in anyone’s army. I think he’s what we call now an independent contractor.”

That elicited a huge cheer from the crowd and Hardwicke promptly re-ran the footage so the talent could get off the stage without any more possible distractions.

So, it took a while to get there, but that was the sort of positive and upbeat feeling Summit was hoping for with the entire panel. Clearly, the Card issue isn’t going away, but if they can get through a 30-minute public forum such as Comic-Con with today’s minimal drama they’ll take their chances it won’t affect the film’s Nov. 1 opening.