Love and War: "Ender's Game" smartly played with enough to debate

Ender's Game (2013)
114 min., rated PG-13.

The much-anticipated adaptation of Orson Scott Card's popular 1985 novel, "Ender's Game" is smart, good-looking and dramatically involving. In hindsight, an allegorical science-fiction/coming-of-age story brought to the big screen could have watered down its tough-minded subject matter or collapsed under its own weight and derivativeness, but the film might even register as being more timely than nearly three decades ago when the source material was published. As the first part of the next big, expensive franchise, depending on box-office numbers, this is one of the good ones. As a reasonably faithful adaptation, it should please its fans just fine, or they'll have plenty of bones to pick because the page-to-screen transition is always risky. To the uninitiated with preconceived notions that this looked like "Tron," "Starship Troopers," and "The Hunger Games" cobbled together, it might play the strongest. 

Fifty years before the futuristic present-day, Earth was attacked by an ant-like alien species called the Formics, resulting in hundreds of thousands of human casualties. Since then, the International Fleet has recruited the smartest children as cadets to practice war games in preparation for the real war. Monitored by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), gifted 14-year-old Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is offered a place in Battle School, a military training academy located in a space station. He could have been the third sibling in his family to not make the program, as older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) was too violent and sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) too compassionate, but Ender must find a balance between emotions. Once shuttled off to boot camp, he has some trouble with authority but advances through the ranks until becoming the commander of a team. Is Ender tactical enough and able to keep his emotions in check to win against the Formics?

Adapted for the screen with an unmistakable vision by writer-director Gavin Hood, who's coming off 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the film is exceedingly well-made with top-tier production values and a propulsive score by composer Steve Jablonsky. The first half is by the far the most engaging and cathartic, developing Ender as a pupil who's seen as a smartass by his peers but then sticks up for himself. The training sequences in the zero-gravity room and Ender's videogame simulations are expertly staged, too. Since there's only so much that can be crammed into a nearly-two-hour film without coming off bloated and overstuffed, Hood noticeably condenses the human relationships a bit, especially between Ender and some of the other cadets, but keeps intact the weighty ideas about compassion, humanity, and morality when it comes to war and genocide. The main thematic throughline driving the film to its revelatory arc, that one comes to love his enemy before destroying him, ends with a surprising impact. 

Everyone in the cast seems to be in tune with Hood's straight-faced but not lifelessly dour approach to the material. Butterfield is excellently self-possessed as the slight but strategic Ender, believably selling the prodigious nature and his lines without coming off unintentionally stiff. Workmanlike in their performances as the cold Colonel Graff and warmer Major Anderson, Ford and Davis both give more to their roles than just showing up. Ben Kingsley shows up late in the proceedings, stuck behind facial tattoos and being used more as a means to an end as Mazer Rackham, the war hero who came the closest to conquering the Formics. Breslin embodies compassion as Valentine, and Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit") is appealing but has little to really work with as Petra, Ender's fellow cadet and possible girlfriend.

For a book that seems to have been ahead of its time, the cinematic treatment verges on terrific before getting a bit bogged down in repetitiveness in the last half, leaving its endgame to feel almost too rushed. Still, as often as not, the first placeholder in a series adapted from a book tends to be anticlimactic and this one finishes better than not. Like Ender himself, there is potential greatness in this film's successors, and where it counts the most as its own self-contained piece, "Ender's Game" stands tall with enough heart and enough to debate.