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posted: 10/31/2013 6:00 AM

Visually stunning 'Ender's Game' really an ethics lesson in da-skies

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  • Ender (the charismatic Asa Butterfield) plays a futuristic game of paintball blitz as part of Battle School training in "Ender's Game."

      Ender (the charismatic Asa Butterfield) plays a futuristic game of paintball blitz as part of Battle School training in "Ender's Game."

  • A young man named Ender (the charismatic Asa Butterfield) enrolls in Battle School to save his planet in "Ender's Game."

      A young man named Ender (the charismatic Asa Butterfield) enrolls in Battle School to save his planet in "Ender's Game."

  • Video: "Ender's Game" trailer

 
 

The idea that humanity banks its entire future on some spunky junior high kids to win a potential intergalactic war with buglike aliens borders on the ludicrous.

Yet, Gavin Hood's visually stunning 2-D translation of Orson Scott Card's book "Ender's Game" neatly pulls it off with bomb aplomb.

Admittedly, parts of "Ender's Game" come up short. The script trundles out yet another cliched search for "The One" -- as in the one kid who can save earth. The finale peters off into the distant universe with an unsatisfying sense of non-closure.

Co-stars Ben Kingsley and Abigail Breslin hardly get the screen time to fully sketch their supporting characters.

Plus, we see how male commanders, such as Harrison Ford's crusty Colonel Graff, can be counted on to make the really tough calls under pressure, while touchy-feely-weepie female commanders, such as Viola Davis' Major Anderson, get all emo when the going gets tough.

What sets "Ender's Game" apart from most other action movies pegged on tweener protagonists is the unusually heavy sense of justice and moral obligation felt by its young hero Ender Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield.

This movie, an old-fashioned morality play masquerading as a kinetic video-game in space, understands some basic truths about youngsters.

Stuck in that rough in-between period bookended by childhood innocence and adulthood worldliness, these young military trainees sport highly empathetic and judicial views of the universe.

That's just what Graff must circumvent if his plans to save the Earth are to succeed.

"Ender's Game" begins with a historical prologue deifying a human soldier making the supreme sacrifice to destroy the mother ship of alien invaders called the Formics.

These invaders, zillions of flying pieces of futuristic furniture trying to take over the planet, retreat to their home.

But Colonel Graff and other military leaders like him believe the Formics will return for a second try at conquest. Humans must be prepared.

Where can they find the next generation of military leaders who can stop the presumed imminent invasion by those hated Formics?

If you guessed "moldable, impressionable kids who play video games better than any adult authority figure," you'd be correct.

When the slender Ender enters Battle School, his burley big brother throws a hissy fit, having been discarded from the program for being too hotheaded.

At Battle School, Ender's shrewd political instincts turn his youthful competitors into allies, especially his new Latino best bud Bean (the ultra-cute Aramis Knight) and the sensible Petra ("True Grit" star Hailee Steinfeld).

Yet, the wiry Ender can't escape Battle School bullies, the worst being the short and short-tempered Bonzo ("Hannah Montana" co-star Moises Arias), at ease with violence.

Graff frequently checks on Ender, and we can tell the commander is quite pleased with how the young lad conducts himself when confronted by aggression and more powerful opponents.

Why?

As Ender, Butterfield initially appears to be an odd choice for the role. He still looks like the younger version of himself when he starred in Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." He comes off too gangly and muscle-challenged to be the tough-butt kid he must become out of necessity.

To compensate, Butterfield projects a raw intensity, a palpable sense of will power in his frequent close-ups, effectively rendered by cinematographer Donald McAlpine in crisp, blazing detail. When Ender takes down an opponent, we really do believe that his older brother taught him some crafty moves.

"Ender's Game" culminates in a battle sequence, but it's clear Hood understands that he's not directing a mere action movie, but an epic allegory for youth all about taking responsibility for decisions and actions, especially those involving war and genocide.

Even Yoda never delved this deeply into an interplanetary thicket of ethics and restorative justice.

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