Take video game culture, project it into an apocalyptic future and look to youth to save Planet Earth in Ender's Game.
This is a thrilling and unsettling concept for a science fiction movie. We are talking specifically about kids with agile brains, great hand-eye coordination and the ability to think through complex strategies in the midst of chaos and crises. Youngsters handle this better than adults, who are stuck in their habits. So the most promising kids are recruited into rigid military training.
In the plotting of Ender's Game, the threat is a probable alien invasion. The aliens are giant ant-like creatures who had already rained down destruction in an earlier, unsuccessful invasion. Dubbed the Formics, they are expected to return to finish the job of exterminating humanity. Earth's leaders reason simply: Kill or be killed.
Anticipating the invasion, a military commander (Harrison Ford) recruits a brilliant third child named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield). His older brother and sister have already bombed out of the program. Rebelling against the numbing training regimen, Ender shows his unique ability to think out military strategies that involve sacrifice and surprise.
Ender's Game is based on a popular young adult fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, a former Mormon missionary and a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young. Card, now am English professor, first published Ender's Game in 1985 and followed with the first of four sequels, Speaker for the Dead, in 1986. In 1991, Card updated Ender's Game to reflect geopolitical changes. Two limited-edition comic book series were published in the 2000s. Card is an executive producer on the movie.
South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) handles Ender's Game as a straight-forward narrative. Most of it takes place in outer space, including in a weightless training chamber.
Hood also wrote the screenplay. Some plotting is simplified, as is the case with all adaptations from book to screen. But the core of the action and the intent is maintained, including moral dilemmas.
As a morality play, Ender's Game sneaks up on us, as it does on Ender Wiggin. Extremely well-played by young Butterfield, Ender is a complicated kid because he prefers using words over violence in conflicts. But, when pushed, he uses extreme violence to prevent further incidents. Just as critically -- heady stuff for a boy turning 10 years old -- Ender struggles with the purpose behind sacrifice.
As a movie, Ender's Game is intense and violent, although not bloody. Whether the violence is personal or epic, it is questioned. Hood explored the same thorny questions about justified violence in his South African masterwork, Tsotsi.
At the same time, much of Ender's Game is just routine Hollywood movie-making. Ford is a caricature as the military boss. Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Viola Davis, Moises Arias and others play what is expected in one-dimensional supporting roles. Only Ben Kingsley, his face painted with Maori warrior tattoos, offers something more off-kilter -- matching the complexities Butterfield deals with in his Ender character.
In the end, Ender's Game is also a beginning. Expect to see a sequel if the box office is good to great.