Hey, who’s in charge here? Surely not that skinny, bossy, obnoxious but obviously very gifted 12-year-old who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings.
Well, yes, that kid is the boss of earth-orbiting Battle School, a position he earned by outsmarting all the other ultra smart kids competing to be commander of a pint-size military force with the decidedly grown-up job of saving our planet from a deadly alien invasion.
This is the premise of Ender’s Game, a futuristic fantasy that stars Asa Butterfield as brilliant young thinker-outside-the-box Ender Wiggin and Harrison Ford as craggy Col. Hyrum Graff, a big shot in an international army that’s bent on thwarting an attack by the insect-like Formics, who almost did away with humanity 50 years ago and are sure to come back and try it again.
Directed by Gavin Hood, this technically flashy film is based on a 1985 book of the same name by Orson Scott Card about genius children being recruited by Col. Graff and other brass with bad haircuts to help save mankind. Trouble is, Graff is none too transparent in his dealings with the youngsters, whose mad skills don’t make up for their naivete when it comes to trusting others and believing what adults tell them.
It starts when Ender’s class of recruits is discouraged from getting too chummy: “These are not your friends,” Graff intones with typical Harrison Ford gravitas. “They are competition.” So Ender, known as a “third” in a family that has exceeded the state-mandated limit of two children, figures out how to figuratively destroy the opposition in war games and rise rapidly through the ranks. This achievement is roughly akin to being the only person in your household who knows how to iron shirts: You end up ironing everybody’s shirts. And Ender winds up working his way into being in charge of a war to prevent all future wars.
Although the kids’ organic affinity for technology makes them key to the mission’s success, it’s still the adults who are calling the shots.
The film’s complex story of children’s natural compassion clashing with the adult-mandated need for decisive power-plays is worthwhile, but it’s almost lost in the dazzling display of video-game prowess that dominates most of the screen time. Scene after scene features the young militia (including Hailee Steinfeld as savvy, sweet Petra, one of the few girls to claw up into elite status) as they connive complex strategies against one another in simulated war games held in zero gravity.
Eventually the games, which are about the closest thing to fun these kids experience, get real, and the film’s focus changes from simply serious to deadly. But Hood doesn’t let go of the fantastic light show, which includes amazing animated sequences that may impress even the most avid gamers. Character development, not the film’s strong suit to begin with, is eventually limited to Maori-style tattoos that cover the face of uber-warrior Mazer Rackham (a grim Ben Kingsley) and the reliable empathy of Viola Davis’ Maj. Gwen Anderson, a psychologist who tries to avoid heaping more personality damage on the kids than is absolutely necessary.
At its heart, the film’s audience appeal lies in its blinding, beautiful, imaginative and explosive scenes of galactic combat. There’s a strong story in Ender’s Game, but to find it, it’s necessary to turn down the visual volume.
Ender’s Game 87 Cast: Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin Director: Gavin Hood Rating: PG-13 Running time: 114 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 11/01/2013
Print Headline: Kids vs. space bullies/In Ender’s Game, spectacular action cloaks tale of sensitive boys and girls learning war