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‘Ender’s Game’: Amazing visuals in sci-fi story of children in charge

‘ENDER’S GAME’ ★★★

Ender Asa Butterfield

Col. Graff Harrison Ford

Petra Hailee Steinfeld

Major Anderson Viola Davis

Summit Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on the book by Orson Scott Card. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material). Opens Friday at local theaters.

This is no 'Star Wars,' says Harrison Ford
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Updated: December 2, 2013 11:16AM



At times “Ender’s Game” throws so many metaphors and moral dilemmas our way, we almost forget to appreciate the stunning and gorgeous visuals covering every inch of the screen.

Almost.

Based on the beloved novel of the same name, “Ender’s Game” (opening with Thursday night screenings in select theaters) is a bit of a gloomy mess at times, and there were moments when it almost imploded under the weight of its own self-importance. But director Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) and a first-rate cast of wily veterans and fresh-faced youngsters deliver a rousing, challenging adventure that should satisfy most young fans of the book while keeping the adults engrossed as well.

Like so many futuristic sci-fi thrillers, “Ender’s Game” begins with narration telling us of a great war that transpired in the past, which is still the future for those of us watching in 2013. In this case, there was an alien invasion in the year 2086 when insect-like aliens known as Formics (aka Buggers because they look like bugs, as do about 75 percent of aliens in all science fiction) filled the skies above Earth and took out tens of millions of humans. All seemed lost until a pilot named Mazer Rackham took out the alien mother ship, thus destroying the enemy fleet.

Now it’s 50 years later. No one has seen Mazer Rackham since that legendary battle (he’s presumed dead), and schoolchildren cheer when they watch video of the great war of the distant past. But trouble could be lurking. The International Fleet helmed by the gruff Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) is scouting recruits for Command School in preparation for the next invasion by the Formics, who have overpopulated their planet and just might be building weapons of mass destruction in preparation for another invasion of Earth.

Do we wait for them to attack, or launch a pre-emptive strike? This is one of the many allegories presented in “Ender’s Game,” usually in a way that will strike adults as a bit heavy-handed while still sailing over the heads of the very youngest of viewers who are just digging the sight of all these kids in cool uniforms engaging in zero-gravity war games.

Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) is Ender Wiggin, a slight but intense boy who has the compassion and intelligence of his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and the unforgiving fierceness of his older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak). Under the watchful tutelage of Col. Graff and his second in command, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), Ender is put to the test in any number of ways, including a hand-held video game in which members of his own family pop up, real-world fights manipulated by the commanding officers and psychological warfare.

Ender’s classmates include the usual roster of archetypes, from the surly rival who hisses “I’ll kill you!” to the loyal sidekicks to the beautiful young lass (Hailee Steinfeld) who instantly takes a liking to this mysterious, sensitive boy. Sometimes it seems as if Major Anderson exists only so Col. Graff has someone he can bark at while explaining why he does the things he does. (Ford, who can be so stiff in roles like this he seems like a cardboard cutout in the theater lobby, gives an animated performance, at least for him. It’s one of his better recent roles.)

What a great-looking film this is. The simulated battles are beautifully shot and expertly choreographed, with teams facing off in video-game type battles in which they’re the actual players. When Ender gets lost in that hand-held game that seems to be tapping into his own subconscious, “Ender’s Game” gets pretty freaky and even a little Freudian. It’s all pretty awesome, if it at times a bit confusing for someone who hasn’t read the books.

Asa Butterfield does a terrific job of conveying Ender’s dilemmas. He’s a victim of bullying who turns the tables in a manner both effective and chilling. He’s a brilliant tactician who recognizes a leader must command the respect of his team and must delegate responsibility — but he also has the instincts of a loner. In simulated battles, Ender is quite willing to sacrifice a thousand soldiers in order to save tens of millions, but will he be so ruthlessly efficient when the real war comes? Col. Graff believes so. Others in the command room aren’t so sure.

Even though “Ender’s Game” explains why children are tapped to lead the fleet, it’s still a bit of a stretch to see the likes of Harrison Ford, Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley looking on from the space equivalent of a luxury skybox while kids who look like their children or grandchildren do all the real fighting. But of course real wars are fought by young men and women only a few years older than these kids, and the “Ender’s Game” books are so popular in large part because the reader is the same age as the warrior.

With echoes of “War Games” and “Star Wars” and even a little bit of “The Matrix” and “The Last Starfighter,” this is the story of a young man thrust into the center of a great struggle that could decide the fate of his people. There are multiple sequels to the book and we will see more of Ender on the big screen as well. His journeys — physical, psychological, ethical — are just beginning.

“Ender’s Game” works as a contained story and as a table-setting first chapter.



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