When the alien invasion comes, don't worry. Just line up the world's smartest children, raised on Wii and Xbox, as Harrison Ford does in Ender's Game. A couple of hours later, the planet will be safe and secure.
A space adventure adapted from Orson Scott Card's 1985 sci-fi novel of the same name finds us earthlings 50 years after an apocalyptic battle with the Formics, a swarm of antlike, intergalactic baddies. They arrived in ships that looked like big, knotty pieces of burl, and came this close to wiping us out, but for the heroism of Mazer Rackham, an International Fleet pilot who somehow eluded all the Formic spacecraft and flew his vehicle right into the heart of the mothership. Kaboom.
They have this historic dogfight on video, and now, in the 22d century, as another invasion is anticipated, the clip has gone viral. It's especially popular on the orbiting Battle School, where the aforementioned pipsqueak brainiacs are assembled to train for the oncoming conflict.
They're called "launchies," these boys and girls, and Ford is their headmaster - Colonel Graff, a gruff and almost jowly military man with a grim countenance and a jaunty beret. He and Major Anderson (a very stern Viola Davis) are the parental figures, monitoring the kids' every move, and even blocking their e-mail. (Yes, in the year 2136, people have stopped texting and IM-ing and have gone back to AOL in droves - you've got mail!)
The officers have plucked one whippersnapper from the school whom they believe exceptional, a "thoroughbred" whose balance of empathy and empowerment, eye-hand coordination, physical stamina and intellect, sets him apart. His name is Andrew Ender Wiggin (Hugo's Asa Butterfield), and although he's thin and nerdy and has several chips on his shoulder, he proves to be "the One," overcoming bullying fellow cadets and barking drill sergeants, using wily strategies and, when necessary, his fists, to win the day.
Like The Hunger Games, Ender's Game is a story of kids being sent off to do battle, and do harm, watched over, and manipulated, by adults. In this case, though, the grown-ups show some concern for the "emotional reality" of their wards. And in this case, instead of heading for the woods, they get to float around in space. There's lots of zero-g action in Ender's Game - even old Han Solo takes a whirl. In the middle of Ender's Game, Wiggin hunkers down on his tablet to play something called "the Mind Game." It's a trippy virtual-reality video, with avatars and castles and a hidden message of great import, and it plays across the giant screen, creating a creepy disconnect for the viewer. This viewer, anyway.
The CG and visual effects in "the Mind Game," as in the rest of Ender's Game, are top-notch. Butterfield brings lots of adolescent earnestness to his role, and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, the recent regrettable Romeo and Juliet) is an affable sidekick. Then there's Butterfield's Hugo costar, Ben Kingsley, in a late appearance, with a Kiwi accent and face covered in Maori tattoos. Clearly, he must hail from Down Under, though, as one Battle School launchie notes, "there is no up or down in space."
Ender's Game **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Gavin Hood. With Asa Butterfield, Viola Davis, Harrison Ford, and Hailee Steinfeld. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, intense action, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters