‘Ender’s Game’ (2013) review: Training for war — with video games

Moises Arias, form left, Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr.)

Moises Arias, form left, Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in “Ender’s Game.” (Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr.)

‘Ender’s Game’ leaves our hero broken, conflicted

“Ender’s Game,” when you strip away the special-effect veneer and futuristic tech, will leave you conflicted and at odds with its mortally ambiguous decisions, character actions and climax. How could it not when our hero is broken through a devastating blend of game-style simulation and real-life murder?

“Ender’s Game,” a risky endeavor from the start with its long book-to-screen timeline, hits the big screen with a big, flashy splash thanks to director Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), who also penned the script based on the 1985 best-selling book of the same name by Orson Scott Card.

“Ender’s Game,” released by Summit Entertainment, is the first book in Card’s blockbuster franchise series. The goal for Summit is obvious: to develop another smash-hit film series on rival with its “Twilight” series, which made the studio some serious cash (about $3.3 billion).

The film tells the story of an adolescent boy, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”), who lives in a dystopian future where children of extreme intelligence and militaristic prowess are selected and then charged with protecting humanity in a war against ant-like aliens named Formics.

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It comes across a bit like the older Harry Potter movies, so take that for what you will. Constant themes for that age group — bullying, violence in video games, alpha-leader mentalities gone rogue — have been around for years, so the situations involving them will feel familiar.

So you would think, with its appeal, “Ender’s Game” would have hit the theaters sooner. Well, along with no one wanting to produce it for fear of its somewhat dated material, author Card has some baggage in the form of his published anti-gay views, which caused DC Comics to indefinitely put on hold his contributions to its Adventures of Superman series. Still, it’s good science fiction, and plenty of authors have less than savory characteristics.

For those unaware of the almost 30-year-old story, “Ender’s Game” starts 50 years after a massive alien attack by the Formics that killed millions. The advance was just barely repelled by the genius heroics of a young leader, Mazer Rackham, who apparently died in combat. After the foiled attack, humans decided that “the world’s smartest children are our best hope.” Which is why said children are recruited.

After being discovered, the children are monitored to determine if they have the right stuff. A select few of those observed are sent to a Battle School space station in Earth’s orbit. There, they train with game-like simulators under the observation of tactician Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and psychologist Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), who are seeking the next Caesar or Napoleon.

The closest candidate turns out to be Ender, a skinny oddball who manages to use his environment and its resources all too cleverly to defend himself from bullies. Not as savage as his older brother, Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak), or as emotionally intelligent as his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), Ender pulls a Harry Potter and manages to fight his fights one punch or plan at a time.

Along with him on the journey are his colleagues/competitors, including the helpful Petra (Hailee Steinfeld, 2010’s “True Grit”) and rival Moises Arias (Bonzo Madrid). They compete with and against each other in laser tag-like events with some sleek costumes design by the same crew from 2010’s “Tron: Legacy.” As predicted, Ender stands out above the crowd with his brilliant strategies and willingness to sacrifice teammates in order to win.

From here it’s an emotional tug-of-war, especially between Ender and Ford’s Graff, the former who wants to impress his substitute father-figure, the latter wanting to perfect the killer he sees in Ender. (On a note about Ford, give his character some time. He seems completely ridiculous early on, but motives and desires play out as the movie moves forward.)

No, “Ender’s Game” is not Harry Potter. Its final battle is completely ridiculous and over the top, and the ending scenes are less than subtle about a sequel. Still, watching Ender mature and find himself among the horrors of war is a treat, and learning what comes next is enough of a reason to warrant a follow-up. Here’s hoping Ender finds his stride.

Three gaming stars out of five.

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