‘Ender’s Game’ a thought-provoking adventure

By PETER DEBRUGE  Variety   – Wednesday, October 30, 2013

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Summit Entertainment
Asa Butterfield stars in “Ender’s Game.”

Movie review

3 1/2 (out of five stars)

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis

Rated: PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

An anti-bullying allegory writ on the largest possible scale, “Ender’s Game” frames an interstellar battle between mankind and pushy ant-like aliens, called Formics, in which Earth’s fate hinges on a tiny group of military cadets, most of whom haven’t even hit puberty yet.

At face value, the film presents an electrifying star-wars scenario while at the same time managing to deliver a higher pedagogical message about tolerance, empathy and coping under pressure.

Against considerable odds, this Orson Scott Card adaptation actually works, as director Gavin Hood pulls off the sort of teen-targeted franchise starter Summit was hoping for.

Card’s novel assumes a situation where, in the wake of a massive Formic attack, the world’s children are somehow best suited to protect their planet from an imminent second strike.

The most promising young recruits train on elaborate videogame-like simulators while a pair of officers, Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), monitor their techniques in search of a child with the instincts to save his species.

The leading candidate is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a runt-like outsider whose behavior toward his aggressive classmates reveals his true potential.

Like “The Hunger Games,” the pic peddles the unseemly idea of watching kids thrust into life-and-death situations.

Between the officers, Graff’s agenda is more complicated than he lets on, while Anderson represents the voice of reason.

Butterfield, who has grown into his big blue eyes, if not the rest of his body, since “Hugo,” makes ideal casting for Ender: He’s scrawny and physically unimposing, yet there’s an intensity to his stare that suggests he might indeed be masking deeper (or darker) gifts.

It’s nothing so powerful as the Force, or Neo’s Matrix-bending abilities, though “Ender’s Game” dedicates nearly its entire run time to Battle School, where our hero and his fellow recruits practice various drills, including an anti-gravity game that looks like the next best thing to Quidditch.

“Ender’s Game” manages to make these training sequences compelling without veering into pro-military propaganda, doing so by focusing on the interpersonal dynamics between the various squad members.

Ben Kingsley pops up for a late cameo, sporting an elaborate Maori tribal tattoo on his face.

It might not seem fair to compare what Hood has created to someone as visionary in all things sci-fi as George Lucas, and yet, considering the sizable budget expended on “Ender’s Game,” one could have hoped for something a bit more groundbreaking.