By Peter DeBruge Variety
An anti-bullying allegory writ on the largest possible scale, “Ender’s Game” frames an interstellar battle between mankind and pushy ant-like aliens, called Formics, in which Earth’s fate hinges on a tiny group of military cadets, most of whom haven’t even hit puberty yet.
At face value, the film presents an electrifying star-wars scenario while managing to deliver a message about tolerance, empathy and coping under pressure.
Against considerable odds, this risky-sounding Orson Scott Card adaptation actually works, as director Gavin Hood pulls off the sort of teen-targeted franchise starter Summit was hoping for.
In the novel, in the wake of a massive Formic attack, the world’s children are somehow best suited to protect their planet from an imminent second strike.
The most promising young recruits train while a pair of officers — Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) — monitor their techniques in search of “the One,” a child with the strategic instincts to save his species.
The leading candidate is Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a runt-like outsider whose behavior toward his aggressive classmates reveals his true potential.
Like “The Hunger Games,” the pic peddles the unseemly idea of watching kids thrust into life-and-death situations. Though they’re not instructed to kill one another, these moppets’ prime directive should also give parents pause, raising the stakes from hand-to-hand combat to the potential genocide of an unfamiliar race.
Between the officers, Graff’s agenda is more complicated than he lets on, while Anderson represents the voice of reason.
Butterfield — who has grown into his big blue eyes, if not the rest of his body, since “Hugo” — makes ideal casting for Ender: He’s scrawny and physically unimposing, yet there’s an intensity to his stare that suggests he might indeed be masking deeper (or darker) gifts.
“Ender’s Game” dedicates nearly its entire run time to Battle School, where our hero and his fellow recruits practice various drills, including an anti-gravity game (the rules of which aren’t terribly clear) that looks like the next best thing to Quidditch.
The casting department has assembled a wonderfully diverse group of young actors — male and female, they come in all colors, shapes and sizes — to serve alongside Ender.
So much youthful energy onscreen makes Ford seem tired and weary by comparison. Still, it’s a treat to discover Han Solo all buttoned up and back to do more space battle — not that anyone here is quite as lively or memorable as the characters B-movie fans discovered in “Star Wars” three dozen years ago.
“Ender’s Game” (2 1/2 stars)
After an interstellar battle, the children of the world are recruited to save it. Two officers (Harrison Ford and Viola Davis) monitor the kids in training, looking for the one who will lead them. With Asa Butterfield.
Rated: PG-13 violence and content.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Pacific Place, Thornton Place, Varsity, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.