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With: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Khylin Rhambo, Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak, Nonso Anozie, Conor Carroll, Caleb J. Thaggard, Cameron Gaskins
Written by: Gavin Hood, based on a novel by Orson Scott Card
Directed by: Gavin Hood
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material
Running Time: 114
Date: 11/01/2013

Ender's Game (2013)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Play Zone

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

First up, I have not read the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, published in 1985. It's a loaded proposition, either way, given that this is the highest-profile adaptation of a popular book since perhaps The Lord of the Rings. If I had read it, I would probably compare the movie to the book -- probably negatively. But in not reading it, I'm not really serving the movie viewers that have read the book; their experience will be different from mine.

However, I will say this: the movie Ender's Game is so-so, and will probably be so-so for just about everyone, whether they've read the book or not.

The story concerns a boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who is training for an elite command position, helping to defend the earth against a race of ant-like alien creatures. His older brother has already failed out of the program for being a hothead, and his sister has failed for being too compassionate. Ender hopes to be something in-between. (The book apparently goes into much more detail about the brother and sister, but we barely meet them here.)

Ender meets Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and goes through a succession of training exercises and subtle personality tests, and advances quickly through the ranks until he is given his own team to command. With time running short, he is given a series of games to play, to practice a real-life war situation against the aliens. But there's a twist, sort of.

The movie ends with a strange sequence that I assume made more sense in the book, wherein Ender finds an alien egg, boards a spaceship and heads out into the universe, looking for a hospitable planet. He must have his reasons, but in the movie it boils down to one thing: guilt.

The movie also boils down whatever Card tried to say in his book to another simple thing: war is bad. Or, more precisely, war makes people make bad decisions. But, still, war is bad.

That leaves us with a series of fights and some cool visual effects, which actually look pretty darn good. The movie uses lots of weightless sequences that are shot smoothly and with an eye for physical space and movement. It's not as astonishing as Gravity, but at least it's not junky, cruddy, and shaky like most of this year's other sci-fi hits (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Man of Steel, Elysium, etc.) and it comes in at less than two hours.

The cast, on the other hand, seems to have been lost in the vast cutting and discarding of material from the novel. None of the characters has much life or much motivation. Accomplished actors like Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Hailee Steinfeld, and Ben Kingsley appear to be stuck. Harrison Ford gets a little more screen time and seems to know what he's doing, but his character is quite flat compared to what he pulled off earlier this year as Branch Rickey in 42.

That leaves young Mr. Butterfield as Ender. He was so wonderful in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and he pulls off this performance mainly because it's such an unusual role. Nowadays, sci-fi heroes are supposed to be cocky, chiseled, handsome bodybuilders, whereas Butterfield is skinny and apprehensive. It's fascinating to watch him discover and adopt the characteristics of a leader, even when they tend to contradict his own personal beliefs.

Truthfully, I didn't expect much. The director, Gavin Hood, has been responsible for two of the most annoyingly bad movies I've seen recently, the Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). But here he graduates to "so-so."

So, in the end, it's a so-so movie. I kept thinking about how many of these ideas had been invented in 1985 and what a different world it was back then. But then again, The Last Starfighter came out in 1984 with some of the same ideas, and it was a lot more fun.

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