Nov. 01--There is plenty of zippy outer-space action, yet it never overshadows the fact that the movie "Ender's Game" is more focused on ideas. If "Gravity" is this year's thinking-man's science-fiction movie, consider "Ender's Game" the thinking-teen's sci-fi film.
This kids-save-the-world story set among the stars is also a slick visual achievement of kinetically designed sets and computer-generated worlds, combining with an appropriately soaring musical score that makes viewing it on the Cinemark Tulsa IMAX screen a bonus.
"Ender's Game" is one of those movies based on a well-known book in which the filmmakers have changed a number of plot points and character responsibilities, and yet they so successfully capture the spirit of the original story that fans should see this as perhaps as good an adaptation of the challenging book as they could have hoped for from Hollywood.
Author Orson Scott Card's novel has remained a perennial best-seller since its release 28 years ago, and its moral complexities and themes including children being used to wage war are still in place.
The story is set in a future in which the Earth was attacked 50 years before by an insect-race called the Formics from another planet, and which were vanquished before they could colonize our world. They've never returned, but all signs point to them preparing for another invasion.
For a battle beyond the stars that will feature spaceships in a variety of shapes and sizes, military leaders have determined that young people raised in the videogaming age (trained to shoot down enemy vessels while watching monitors) are the ones most equipped to lead the fight.
They must also have a leader emerge from their peer group, and Ender Wiggin -- a teen whose military training has shown him to be an inventive strategist who never loses -- appears to be the so-called "chosen one" for this mission.
Asa Butterfield, who is 16 but looks closer to 12 or 13 in the film, is a wise choice for the role of Ender. The young star of "Hugo" has a lacking physicality that demands his character be brainy to outwit his opponents, and he pulls that off, but there's also a determination as well as a vacancy within those sad eyes that add a complexity to his characterization.
He also has excellent interaction with Harrison Ford, who this year has embraced key supporting roles in multiple films like this one and "42" to great effect.
As Ender's military observer, continually watching his prized pupil's intense boot-camp progress via video, Ford's character is a wicked puppeteer with a strict single-mindedness: I need this boy to save our planet, so I don't have time for decency or fair play.
He often changes Ender's circumstances in this "game," placing the boy in multiple battles, from zero-gravity "battle-room" simulator bouts between teams to Ender in self-defense mode on a personal level.
"Let's see how he deals with rejection," Ford's character purrs, watching as the small boy bests a larger boy in a fistfight-turned-beatdown.
The boy's answer, always, is violence and never diplomacy. The level of personal violence, and the film's justification that Ender is being trained, in all things, to win a war "to end all other wars" may leave some cold.
Bullying is another theme explored in "Ender's Game," and one of the best when the film plays out to a moment that is faithful to the book, but which falls short of that ending. The conclusion feels shaped for a sequel.
Another film might allow for better development of Ender's classmates, very likable characters who receive brief appearances, or of Ender's family, which beyond Abigail Breslin as his sister is largely omitted along with the book's political agenda surrounding them.
If a sequel happens, it will likely be because writer-director Gavin Hood has effectively balanced creative ideas with rousing action sequences, especially those in the "battle room," with teen and tween bodies shooting through the simulator's gigantic airspace in "space war" games.
"Ender's Game" is a thrill to the senses, while at the same time provoking thought.
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin
Theaters: (IMAX) Cinemark Tulsa, AMC Southroads 20; also at Cinemark Broken Arrow, Starworld 20, RiverWalk, Owasso, Eton Square, Sand Springs
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material)
Quality: 3 stars (on a scale of zero to four stars)
(c)2013 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)
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