Oct. 31--Of course young people like "Ender's Game," a story that assures them they will be the ones to save the world, and the nonstop playing of video games is the way to prepare for that eventuality.
Based on the fantasy novel by Orson Scott Card, "Ender's Game" is an exciting and sometimes stirring adventure because of Ender himself.
One of the world's smartest children, Ender is pressed into service by what is basically the all-world team of authority figures played by Harrison Ford, Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley.
They drop Ender and the world's other smartest children into basic training where, using video-game and role-playing technology, they are quickly taught how to fight a war against encroaching enemies from outer space.
None of that will blow you away with its originality -- there's a "Star Trek"-meets-Harry Potter quality to this first in what may be a series of Ender films -- but the title character is a fascinating and complex person who is given his due in Asa Butterfield's intuitive, open-hearted performance.
Ender lives by a strong moral code: As we gradually learn, even though he is a gifted warrior, he is also troubled by the ramifications of war. So, as much as "Ender's Game" plays like a military drama, what it's ultimately about is the cost of war, both in lives lost and psyches damaged.
Butterfield, who was so good in "Hugo," nimbly captures the competing impulses within Ender, who is simultaneously violent and decent, ruthless and full of doubt.
Director Gavin Hood places Butterfield in a great-looking, near-future world. Although a lot of what we're looking at is cold, hard metal and glass, cinematographer Donald McAlpine bathes it in warm light, almost as if those spaceships and weapons are illuminated by bright candlelight.
The special effects, too, have an organic quality that begins with the invaders, who come to Earth in ships resembling giant bugs. The net effect of all of that attention to detail is that "Ender's Game" takes place in a future that does not feel alien to us, a future we can quickly embrace.
What does not happen so quickly in "Ender's Game" is the development of characters. The authority trio registers largely because of the overlap from those actors' previous roles, but Ender's schoolmates make little impact.
It's possible Hood is trying too hard to cram as much of the book as possible into the movie, what with scenes that introduce Ender's schoolmates both on Earth and at basic training, as well as his not-essential-to-this-plot family. In particular, every expense has been spared in the casting of Ender's drab mom and dad, so we instantly know those characters won't amount to anything.
Hood may have mollified fans of the book by not dumping some of those characters and by depicting one or two redundant battle simulations, but he does the movie no favors by barely dealing with Ender's friendships with fellow warriors Bean (Aramis Knight) and Petra (Hailee Steinfeld).
"Ender's Game" would be a richer movie if Ender's connections to those characters were deeper. Instead, Hood relies on young Butterfield to supply enough emotion to power an entire movie, and darned if the kid doesn't almost pull it off.
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld
Rated: PG-13, for violence
Should you go? Yes. It's an exciting adventure that gets almost everything right. ***
(c)2013 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: 'Ender's Game' review: Carrying whole film not a heavy load for gifted young actor
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