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Thursday, October 31, 2013

'Ender's Game' musters out of space school

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS: Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield in Enders Game
It's possible to admire the award-winning 1985 sci-fi novel Ender's Game while decrying the views of author Orson Scott Card, who became an outspoken opponent of gay marriage in the years following the book's publication. The filmmakers behind the big-screen adaptation of Ender's Game have distanced themselves from Card's views, and viewers can assess the film's ideas about futuristic warfare independently of present-day politics. You can readily dislike Ender's Game on its own terms, rather than by association.

Gavin Hood, the Oscar-winning director of Totsi better known for his ham-handed helming of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, writes and directs a sleek but awkward take on Ender's Game that suffers from trying to compress the book's multi-leveled story into less than two hours. An unconvincing first hour segues to a more intriguing third act without quite redeeming the film.

Ender's Game takes place in the future, 50 years after humanity threw back an invasion from ant-like aliens called the Formics. Earth's International Fleet, in the persona of Col. Graff (Harrison Ford), anticipate that the Formics will attack again and pin their hopes for defense on a young prodigy named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield of Hugo). Apparently young people can process complex information more quickly than adults, and Ender's the most promising potential leader.

Graff enlists Ender for "Battle School," a military academy on an orbiting space station, where the boy quickly rises in the ranks through his achievements in training, coursework and particularly a zero-gravity game that resembles paintball with stun guns. With an uncertain chosen one entering an elite school and excelling at a gravity-defying sport, the Ender's Game movie unfolds as a dour, outer space version of Harry Potter, with the competition proving no more enchanting than the big-screen Quidditch matches.

The book conveys how Ender earns friendships, becomes a leader and rises in the ranks, details Hood conveys with the barest amounts of shorthand. The script tells us that Ender wants to strike a balance between his bloodthirsty older brother Peter and his compassionate sister Val, but the siblings never become vivid characters, even though they're rich personalities on the page. Similarly, a fantasy-oriented virtual environment called "The Mind Game" only gets a perfunctory treatment, despite its eventual importance to the plot.

The film improves when Ender moves onto "Command School" on an alien colony claimed by humanity and occupying tunnels that resemble giant anthills. Ender's flair for game formations pays off in simulations of interstellar combat, and though the dialogue becomes impenetrable, the editing and effects convey the complexity of teamwork and strategy.

Butterfield captures Ender's intelligence, uncertainty and drive to prove himself. Unfortunately his fellow cadets make almost no impression except for Moisés Arias as a tyrannical, pint-sized upperclassman with the unlikely name of Bonzo Madrid. Meanwhile, Ford finds few opportunities to be charming as Col. Graff, seldom nails the role's intimidating qualities, and seems embarrassed to take part in a floating-in-space gag.

The film reserves its most interesting concepts for the final 10 minutes before it rushes to the closing credits. Ender's Game touches on such timely themes as the pressures adults put on young people to succeed, the morality of preemptive military strikes and even the use of drone warfare, while the novel's treatment of games and the internet prove remarkably prescient. Ultimately, the book deserves better than its adaptation or its author.

Ender's Game. 2 stars. Directed by Gavin Hood. Stars Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Nov. 1. At area theaters.

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