Movies

A serious 'Ender's Game' | 2½ stars

Updated: 2013-11-01T13:15:29Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

If you play enough video games, you can save the world.

That’s one of several themes that spring from “Ender’s Game,” a respectable adaptation of the first book in the acclaimed series by Orson Scott Card. The movie incorporates intriguing morality debates into a space adventure about young recruits fighting intergalactic bugs. But it’s very serious. Almost joyless. It’s like “Starship Troopers” minus the campy humor and wanton nudity.

Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) stars as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. (Note: He’s no relation to KU basketball forward Andrew Wiggins — other than he comes in with a lot of hype.) A skinny geek with piercing eyes bordered by a constellation of freckles, Ender is selected by the International Fleet to help prevent another invasion by the alien Formics. Tens of millions of people died during an attack a half century ago, and since then Earth has become a militarized co-op.

This is a “boot camp for kids who have to fight a real enemy,” explains Col. Graff (a stiff Harrison Ford).

Like other 12-year-olds, Ender is a master at violent video games. Since that’s similar to the way real soldiers do battle in this futuristic world, youngsters represent the best strategists. But unlike others his age, Ender can outwit his classmates both intellectually and psychologically. “Ender’s Game” follows his progression up the ranks until he’s primed for real combat.

Writer/director Gavin Hood displays far more command of the material than he did in the reviled “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” (At 17, Hood was drafted into the South African army, likely not a rosy experience.)

Hood centers most of the action in a space station Battle Room. A marvel of glossy production design, this stadium-sized translucent sphere provides a zero-gravity environment for teams to engage in capture-the-flag-type missions … and mind games under the controlling gaze of Col. Graff.

If it plays a bit like Quidditch with teams Griffin vs. Salamanders instead of Gryffindor vs. Slytherin, well, it is. Though the book predated “Harry Potter” by more than a decade, “Ender’s Game” still follows that franchise’s “exceptional child in an isolated school” template.

The adults are forever telling the hero how great he is. He finds two loyal companions, a boy and a girl (Aramis Knight and Hailee Steinfeld). Anyone not a friend is a total enemy whose only purpose in life is to harass the hero. (Easily the worst overacting in the movie involves these unconvincing bullying bits, especially by Moises Arias of “The Kings of Summer” as a squad leader with lethal short-guy syndrome.) Then there’s the scary adult (Ben Kingsley with a Maori face tattoo) who is part mentor and part foe.

It’s all rather formulaic and not particularly interesting … until the third act. For those who haven’t read the novels and don’t know where this is all leading, “Ender’s Game” delivers on its promise of a big finale. It ambitiously embraces a gray area where the hero’s mantra of “know your enemy” takes on added significance.

Butterfield is superb during these high-stress moments, imparting both the confidence of a budding genius and the stress of someone in way over his head.

With Col. Graff’s fascist rhetoric about “the purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars” echoing in his mind, young Ender truly goes where no man has gone before.

IS ‘ENDER’

JUST THE BEGINNING?

Will the “Ender’s Game” box office warrant sequels, beginning with adapting Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead”? Young star Asa Butterfield has learned to be cagey. He is not signed up to do sequels, “not yet.”

But he’s game, should the need arise.

“As of now, acting is all I ever want to do,” he says. “I might have a change of heart. But meeting the people I have been able to meet, having the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have, flying in the air 40 foot above the ground with Cirque du Soleil trainers for this movie, all the other wonderful experiences I’ve had on sets, this does look like the life for me.”

| Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune

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