In a future where families are encouraged not to overbreed, Ender Wiggin is the third child born to his family, "an extra."
Skinny and pale, he is bullied at school. But he's been observed and singled out by the state. How he solves problems during video games and copes with bullies — his cunning, ruthlessness and measured compassion — are assets.
"The world's smartest children are our best hope," military leaders tell one another. Ender (Asa Butterfield of Hugo) is such a "best hope," chosen for Battle School.
Ender's Game, based on Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel, is a glossy, humorless march through a future where kids are our best warriors, able to multitask combat duties and instantly reason out strategies for battle success. Card's military meritocracy, on the screen, plays like Starship Troopers without a tongue-in-cheek touch to its fascism, The Last Starfighter without the wit.
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But in the hands of director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the story's moral quandary, about kids learning to kill before they learn compassion, stands front and center.
Ender's Game follows Ender into Battle School, where his ability to master the skills of combat command are on display at every turn.
"We need a Julius Caesar, a Napoleon," growls Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford).
They're all still children, argues Major Anderson (Viola Davis).
Indeed they are — martial, militaristic kids, formed into teams and trained for battle in Earth's war for survival against the Formics, bug-eyed space-travelers who almost conquered Earth decades before.
Ender is not the heartless killer his older brother (Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak) is or the empathetic pacifist his sister (Abigail Breslin) turned out to be. Threatened by a rival, he outthinks, outnegotiates or outfights each one in his turn.
Butterfield makes a fine all-business soldier-in-the-making, but he barely suggests a mind that is broadening in spite of the narrow, kill-or-be-killed focus of his training. Moises Arias and Hailee Steinfeld are well cast as part of this distinctly multicultural school of the best and the brightest, and the movie perks up quite a bit when Ben Kingsley shows up as an instructor.
But even taking into account the limitations of an "introduction to a franchise" film, this movie never feels less than heavy-handed.
So sure, it's good-looking, cautionary and clever enough. But there's not much in this Game you'd call thrilling or fun.
PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material. Summit. 1:54. Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill