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"ENDER'S GAME"
(2013) (Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi: A boy is selected to go through military training in the belief that he might be Earth's best bet to lead international forces into battle against the potential return of an alien invasion.
PLOT:
It's been 50 years since an ant-like alien species known as the Formics attacked Earth. If not for the heroics of fighter pilot Mazer Rackham (BEN KINGSLEY), all may have been lost, but his actions defeated the enemy that's now been corralled back to their home planet. Nonetheless, Earthlings are still concerned about another possible attack and thus have created a battle school for kids from which they hope they'll find their next great leader.

Colonel Graff (HARRISON FORD) believes he may have found that in Ender Wiggin (ASA BUTTERFIELD), a young and quite bright outcast who uses his wits alongside violence to defeat those who bully him now and prevent any such future attacks. While military shrink Major Gwen Anderson (VIOLA DAVIS) wants to know what's going on inside the boy's head, Graff thinks they may have found their next leader and thus whisks Ender away from his family -- including his sister, Valentine (ABIGAIL BRESLIN) -- to a military training station in orbit around Earth.

There, he not only meets Drill Sergeant Dap (NONSO ANOZIE) who's ordered to whip them into shape, but also other fellow cadets such as Bean (ARAMIS KNIGHT), Alai (SURAJ PARTHASARATHY) and Petra (HAILEE STEINFELD) who side with him. But he must also contend with bullies such as Bernard (CONOR CARROL) and the slightly older if sociopathic leader of one of the battle school's teams, Bonzo (MOISES ARIAS). A quick study of others, Ender is able to deal with them as needed and is fast-tracked through the system by Graff who believes that a Formic attack is imminent.

From that point on, Ender must contend with his increasingly scaled training and the repercussions that come from both his actions and decisions, as well as the weight of possibly being Earth's only chance against the enemy invaders.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Back when I was growing up, home video games didn't exist until I was eleven (and even then the Sears exclusive version of Pong was something like $100, so I didn't know anyone who owned it). Accordingly, if we weren't playing board games or electric football (remember the vibrating metal field?), we were outside playing football, baseball and other such sports as well as our own versions of "Cops and Robbers," "Cowboys and Indians" and "War."

Interestingly enough, and despite some of us growing up as offspring of WWII vets, it was never "Allies vs. Axis" or "Americans vs. Nazis" and so on. We simply were unaffiliated kid soldiers with toy guns running around and shooting each other as if in battle, with little in the way of military tactics or realism, although one friend was quite spectacular in his melodramatic death scene theatrics.

Nowadays, many kids play increasingly realistic, first-person shooter video games that create more of a "you are there" experience, minus the psychological fallout experienced by those who've actually been in combat. Nonetheless, while many criticize the impact such directly controlled if virtual violence has on young minds, some reports have indicated such experience playing video games has led to better soldiers, while the operation of related controls has also created a skilled subset of kids ready and able to man remote control drones and such for the military.

I have no idea if the first real-world inklings of that were what inspired author Orson Scott Card to write his award-winning novel "Ender's Game." Whatever the inspiration, the 1985 novel certainly touched on such subjects as its titular protagonist was a 10-year-old boy enrolled in a battle school designed to teach children military tactics and single out the most gifted who could lead Earthlings into battle should they ever be attacked again by an alien, insect-like species known as the Formics.

That tale has now been brought to the big screen by writer/director Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Rendition") who has cast Asa Butterfield (who played the title character in "Hugo") as his protagonist. While I haven't read Card's source novel, from what I can tell Hood's version mostly follows the gist of the original work minus a lot of the follow-up material after a pivotal battle scene. I can't say how fans of the novel will react, but for those of us who aren't, the resultant big budget film (reportedly $110 million) ends up coming off like a sci-fi and juvi military boot camp flick that's far more interesting thematically than it is as fully realized, big-screen entertainment.

My biggest problem while watching the nearly two-hour film unfold and then pondering it in hindsight is that I simply didn't buy the premise. Why are these kids the best option Earth has from a military standpoint? Since it's been half a century since the bugs were repelled in a large scale battle (seen in the exposition-filled opening sequence and some subsequent flashbacks), one would assume it's not because all of the adult menfolk were killed in the battle.

Such characters are around, namely in the form of Harrison Ford playing a colonel who wants to weed out the best kid candidate and thrust him or her into command of the entire operation (without worrying about the psychological weight that would put on such young minds and shoulders), while Nonso Anozie plays the drill sergeant assigned to keep the cadets in order and bark out the usual commands at them. And Ben Kingsley shows up in the third act as a veteran fighter pilot who saved the day way back when but since has become a legendary, but never seen figure who's apparently spent his time going all Mike Tyson getting his face tattooed.

Had Hood and company given me reason to believe in the concept (even Luke Skywalker isn't given command of the entire rebel organization in the original "Star Wars" film), I might have more willingly gone along for the ride. Sans that, I simply couldn't suspend enough disbelief to accept the premise. And that's despite Butterfield delivering a strong performance as the bullied and misunderstood kid whose tactical mind and penchant for dishing out violence shows something complex and quite possibly disturbing and maybe even dangerous is lurking about inside his noggin.

Others are concerned about that, including Viola Davis playing a military shrink of some sort; Abigail Breslin as the boy's sister back home; and Hailee Steinfeld as a fellow cadet who sees greatness in Ender (with hints of a possible future teen romance between the two characters should any subsequent sequels get the green light).

The production values and special effects are all decent and fitting with the nine-figure budget, even if some of the battle footage too closely resembles the frenetic and over-crowded airspace and regular space sequences that George Lucas brought into popularity with his second batch of "Star Wars" flicks. Yet, and due to not buying into the premise, I never got caught up in any of those action moments that eventually overwhelm the more interesting character study that precedes them (and the various, military-based training moments). For its various flaws, the original "Star Wars" still holds up in terms of exciting action and caring about the main character. Here, that simply didn't happen for me.

And thus the film's themes of how far society can push kids into growing up fast and accepting adult responsibility before reaching maturity come off as more interesting and compelling than the basic story. Granted, some of that's handled a bit heavy-handed at the end, especially as the film does the old switcheroo of trying to make us fall for the rah-rah, yea military material before pointing a finger at such a mindset. Perhaps all of that was handled with a bit more aplomb in the novel.

The end result is a pic that sort of falls into a cinematic no man's land. It's not entirely smart or complex enough to work as heady sci-fi, nor is it engaging and enthralling from an action standpoint. It's certainly not bad by any means, but its limbo status doesn't have me terribly interested in any sequels should they be headed our way anytime soon. Filled with varying amounts of untapped potential, "Ender's Game" rates as just a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 29, 2013 / Posted November 1, 2013


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