Film review: ‘Ender’s Game’ is best of both worlds

Film review: ‘Ender’s Game’ is best of both worlds
Asa Butterfield, left, and Harrison Ford star in “Ender’s Game.” Photo by Richard Foreman

With a combination of remarkable visuals, electrifying sci-fi action, a captivating story, and a solid ensemble cast, “Ender’s Game” captures the spirit of Orson Scott Card’s bestselling novel. 

Humanity is under threat of invasion by the Formics (aka “Buggers”), an alien race that nearly wiped them out years ago.

To prepare for the next conflict, the International Fleet recruits and trains the best young children, intent on finding the one who could achieve victory and become a hero like the legendary Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley).

The shy but brilliant Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is selected to attend the famous Battle School, where he quickly proves himself a master at the war games and earns respect among his fellow soldiers-in-training, including Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld).

Before Ender knows it, he’s soon proclaimed by Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) as humanity’s greatest future hero and advances him to Command School.

In spite of his tactical genius, however, Ender is still a kid, and as time goes by, the toll of his violent training sessions begins to get to him, and he struggles to understand what he’s really fighting for.

Those are tough questions for a kid to answer, and not the kind you’d usually see in a science fiction blockbuster that’s meant to appeal to a wide audience.

And yet, somehow, “Ender’s Game” manages to make the best of both worlds and scores two big points as a result.

The visual effects are beautiful; there was more than one occasion in which I leaned forward in my seat upon seeing the Battle School located in Earth’s orbit come into view.

But inside the station, into the battle room where much of the training happens, that’s where moviegoers are guaranteed to lose themselves in a world many of us dream of seeing.

Once the audience gets there, a good number of people are going to get a kick out of director Gavin Hood’s excellent handling of the zero gravity action sequences.

Watching Ender and his classmates face off against each other while floating around in a vacuum shooting guns more than once never ceased to amaze me, thanks to the actors’ precise timing and coordination. Ah, if only action choreography was this mesmerizing in every movie!

Underneath those layers of pristine CGI and well-choreographed set pieces is the story of a boy whose journey changes him from the inside out, for better or worse.

It’s impossible not to experience shock at the violence Ender finds himself having to resort to, and even after the film has ended, that feeling continues to linger.

At the same time, though, he’s the kind of person we want to see win no matter what odds he faces, even if said odds don’t have pleasant implications. Kudos to author Card for writing such a nuanced story from which nobody will walk away untouched.

I’m also pleased to say that none of the weighty issues the story tackles are watered-down; overlooking the use of children in warfare, morality in times of conflict, and the cost of achieving peace would’ve been foolish.

The good news is that Hood never insults the audience’s intelligence either, as he retains the source material’s thematic complexity without making it overly complicated.

It’s really the cast I should thank for exploring these themes in depth; topics mean nothing if they don’t have a mouthpiece through which to communicate.

Asa Butterfield takes up the mantle of Ender and nails it; he brings out the character’s compassion and ruthlessness with flying colors.

Hailee Steinfeld never holds back in embodying Petra’s courage and selflessness.

Abigail Breslin, who plays Ender’s sister Valentine, has a warm presence that helps to keep the story going in its darkest hours.

Harrison Ford lives up to Colonel Graff’s reputation as a “do-whatever-it-takes” man, and Viola Davis exudes Major Anderson’s conscience with effortless grace.

As for Sir Ben Kingsley…well, there’s very little he can’t do in his few scenes as the charismatic Mazer Rackham.

Fans and non-fans alike, when “Ender’s Game” hits theaters, I recommend you check it out.

It is not only a worthy adaptation of Card’s novel, but also an intelligent, exciting movie in its own right.

 

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.
Running time: 1 hour and 54 minutes
Playing: In general release

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