Movie: Ender's Game; Director: Gavin Hood; Studio: Lionsgate; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 3 out of 5 stars.
I did not read Orson Scott Card's widely read 1985 book "Ender's Game," although I had it thrust at me dozens of times in middle school. So, if you're a fan of the book, then there's very little (read: nothing) in this review that will help you to decide if your favorite plots and subplots made it into this adaptation, screenwritten and directed by Gavin Hood.
No, this film was entered into without any preconceived notions, and it held up intact and entertaining.
Future Earth has been shell-shocked following a terrible intergalactic war with the Formics, a hive-mind race who apparently are ripping through the universe in search of water and relief from an unsustainable population growth "just like us."
There was a hero from the war, though. According to a video endlessly shown to recruits to an international space-based military force, Mazer Rackham performed a seemingly selfless act by piloting his fighter into the heart of a Formic transport ship that effectively wiped out the entire battalion attacking Earth that day.
I guess it was a war with few heroes, and only this one act can be shown as a way of teaching young minds heroics and the power of instinct and impulse.
One young cadet is Ender, who, at the beginning of the film, feels like he has failed his family as his older sister and older brother and father had done before him. Once it seemed like he was kicked off the opening program to recruit new leaders to the military, bullies at the school figured he was no longer being monitored, and decided to finally treat him to a little beating on his way out the door.
But Ender (Asa Butterfield from 2011's "Hugo") is smarter
than they are and also a bit vicious, both of which delight Col. Graff (Harrison Ford). He likes the extra kicks Ender gives the head bully, ensuring that not just this one fight but all future fights will stop.
It's called "tactics."
At home, he is told, almost unwillingly, by his father that it is OK he was dropped from the program because everyone else in the family had also been dropped. This is also where gender stereotypes come into the fold.
You see, like Graff, Ender's father likes that Ender kicked the bullies over and over and stood up for himself. The mother disagrees. And, when it's shown that Ender was actually promoted to the next tier of training instead of being dropped, we meet Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, from 2011's "The Help"). She's tasked with monitoring Ender's emotions and remains a motherly character throughout the film, to contrast with the gruffness of Graff.
But Ender wasn't just promoted.
He's "the one," according to Graff, who will lead the entire fleet in a new war against the Formics, who seem to have gone back home and haven't made an aggressive act in 50 years. A war not to just end this war, but to end all future wars. Like Ender's kicks.
But now we've got to rid the kid of that emotional side, because there's no room for emotions when outright genocide is what's for dinner. So, Graff constructs as many different ploys to separate Ender from the rest of the pack emotionally and sometimes physically until Ender is as tough as he can be. During that time, he receives at first resentment from the lesser ones and then grudging respect.
And then, you know, just respect.
But there's another bully for Ender to almost kill.
Bullies, you see, represent his abusive older brother who was dropped from the training program himself because he was too quick to violence. They like people to be quick to instinct, which includes violence, but for logical and meaningful purpose.
And that means that Bonzo, Ender's team leader through a mid-section of the movie, has to go. He's a (very, almost comically) short guy with a terrible temper who thinks it's his way or the highway. Ender, though, finds it hard to respect someone for the sole reason that they outrank him.
So, it's another fight, and then a test using zero-gravity laser tag, after which Ender is "as ready as he can be."
The visuals are beautiful in this film, especially the planet vacated of the Formics at some point after the first war. Some of the spiny architecture still left by the alien "buggers" resembles realistic oil painting in the form of Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger's work, especially the work that inspired the visuals of the classic monsters in 1979's "Alien" and its sequels.
The final scene recalls a bit of 2006's "Pan's Labyrinth," as well as a bit of "Through the Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll, and is so awe-inspiringly gorgeous and detailed and even meaningful that you may forget that the film is set up to be the beginning of a brand new young-adult film franchise.
While in many respects Ender's Game falls prey to the trappings of that young-adult film franchise mold, with cliched characters with simplified interactions, there is still much more to be found in the questioning of the morality of war.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)