Ben Kingsley (left) and Harrison Ford (center) train teenager Asa Butterfield to defend Earth from intergalactic attack in 'Ender's Game.' (Richard Foreman)
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It may have taken almost 30 years to get Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi novel “Ender’s Game” to the big screen, but the timing proves fortuitous.
With concern swiftly rising about cyberbullying among the teen set, the film pulls a neat trick by using teen actors to deliver a heartfelt message of tolerance and empathy — then pulls another neat trick by working that message on both an individual and intergalactic level.
Ender (the fine Asa Butterfield) is a young boy drafted into Earth’s intergalactic forces 50 years after humanity was almost exterminated by the Formics, an ant-like alien species.
The Formics were beaten back — barely — when legendary fighter pilot Mazer Rackham made the ultimate sacrifice for his planet with a kamikaze run on the Formic command ship.
Earth has spent the ensuing decades prepping for what the brass believes is the Formics’ inevitable return, with Rackham’s epic act of heroism replayed endlessly for inspiration.
We follow Ender through various levels of training among dozens of other kids under the watchful eye of Col. Graff (Harrison Ford), who believes the boy might be a true prodigy.
And it seems he’s right; Ender possesses a unique mix of steely forcefulness, tactful diplomacy and deep compassion that he instinctively calibrates to his advantage in any situation and serves to make him a magnetic leader among his peers.
Ender and the other kids endure increasingly complex drills and simulations until the story takes a hard left turn when Rackham (Ben Kingsley) pops up in Ender’s quarters; reports of his death clearly were exaggerated. (Nice to know disinformational propaganda will stay a military hallmark far into the future.)
Rackham’s appearance heralds the final stages of Ender’s training, which leads to a shockingly great and unexpected twist.
While it’s a fairly swift-moving tale, writer-director Gavin Hood treats a variety of plot points in quite shallow and facile fashion.
For example, a bullying trainee leader named Bonzo (Moises Arias), a pint-sized martinet with huge chips on both shoulders, challenges Ender to a fight, which ends with Bonzo bashing his head on the floor and sustaining severe injuries.
Wracked with guilt, Ender quits his training to stay by the comatose Bonzo’s side. But when Graff sends Ender’s sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) to talk him out of quitting, he forgets about Bonzo in about 3.5 seconds.
Similarly, a cute trainee named Petra (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) seems to be set up as a love interest for Ender, and you keep anticipating that first kiss — but it never happens.
The special effects are good, though the film has the great misfortune to be caught in the vapor trail of the eye-popping “Gravity,” which makes any other space flick pale in comparison.
The production design is also well done, even if the Formics can’t be considered conceptually groundbreaking 30-plus years after “Alien” set the standard for terrifying xenomorphs.
The film’s oddest touch is the airily dismissive way it whistles past the issue of why barely pubescent teens are the ideal choice to command immense war fleets in intergalactic combat — especially when Han Solo himself is on hand, still looking plenty fit enough to fire up the Millennium Falcon for some combat sorties.
The sum-total explanation is a throwaway line by Han ... uh, Graff: “Young people integrate data more easily than adults.”
Yet despite its flaws, “Ender’s Game” deftly provokes thought about the moral consequences of violence, war and even genocide — in a way designed to resonate with young viewers who will become tomorrow’s leaders.
Any film capable of pulling that off must be worthy of some kind of valor medal.
Rated PG-13 for non-bloody sci-fi violence and mature themes. Got a rant or rave about the movies? Email http://firstname.lastname@example.org.