By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The makers of Ender’s Game hope it’s just the beginning.
And, given the quality of this terrific, teen-targeted science fiction action-adventure thriller, an unabashed franchise hopeful in the vein of Harry Potter meets Star Wars, it might be just that.
Crisp and glossy, intense without being oppressive, Ender’s Game is set in the not-so-near future, 50 years after a horrific war, when a bullied but gifted 12-year-old, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield (who played the title role in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Hugo), is recruited by the military and sent to an abandoned military school in space to prepare for an imminent invasion by hostile aliens, the Formics, who previously attacked Earth.
The feeling is that perhaps the “world’s smartest children are the world’s best hope” and that children’s brains are more appropriately wired for modern military conflict.
And the hope is that perhaps Ender will be the savior, this young tactician who is so willing to resort to violence as part of his problem-solving process, to lead humankind’s last stand against these insect-like aliens.
When the Formics last attacked, in an attempt to colonize Earth, only a heroic stand under the command of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham, played by Ben Kingsley, saved the day and prevented complete annihilation.
In preparation for the next attack, the International Military’s well-respected Colonel Hyman Graff, the gruff mentor played by Harrison Ford – yep, Han Solo returns to space after several decades — is in charge of training the best children, computer-literate teens chosen on the basis of their gaming skills, in the hope of turning up a successor to Rackham.
Perhaps Ender, obviously shy but just as obviously strategically brilliant, can fill the bill, which is why he is pulled out of school to instead attend Battle School and attempt to master war games.
Prodigy Ender thrives and progresses and impresses – while making an enemy or two along the way — and is soon promoted to Command School, where he is trained by Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into battle, with no less than the future of the human race at stake.
With all the military training and buggy aliens, Ender’s Game certainly recalls 1997’s Starship Troopers, but features younger soldiers.
Butterfield — so fine in not only Hugo but 2008’s amazing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas — is equally effective here, and is solidly supported by an ensemble that includes not only polished pros Ford and Kingsley but three female Oscar nominees: Viola Davis as a shrink, Hailee Steinfeld as a fellow recruit, and Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister.
South African director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition, Tsotsi) also wrote the indisputably thought-provoking adaptation, in which ideas matter as much as visuals and action, with the focus on brains over brawn as it explores the morality of violence, and what part conscience and compassion play in military conflict.
Rarely if ever has a popcorn movie taken on violence and video games and embedded it so organically, thoroughly, and productively in the narrative.
And the special effects, which are slick and convincing, never pull focus from the drama.
The source material is the first book in the series, the award-winning 1985 Young Adult best-seller by Orson Scott Card, the great-great-grandson of Brigham Young whose personal opposition to gay marriage has created for the film a controversy, protest, backlash, and proposed boycott.
But for viewers who keep art separate from the artist, this is the kind of kidflick that not only demonstrates vividly why kids will dig it, but that turns anyone who hasn’t been a kid for quite some time back into one for a couple smartly entertaining hours.
Game over and nicely done.
So we’ll train 3 stars out of 4 for a futuristic epic adventure aimed at a youthful audience that may or may not launch a franchise, but that does stand alone as a generous helping of sci-fi food for thought. That is, Ender’s Game justifies the means.