Of all the science-fiction films that have arrived on screens in 2013, perhaps none has the same local degree of anticipation as "Ender's Game," the long-awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card's award-winning science-fiction novel. Card's connections to Utah, including degrees from both BYU and the University of Utah, put this new film in a brighter spotlight along the Wasatch Front.
So to get to the point, "Ender's Game" should fit the bill for anyone looking for some entertaining sci-fi action. Fans of Card's novel will be happy to find a fairly faithful adaptation of the source material, though it does seem to draw on content outside the original novel. And audiences unfamiliar with the book shouldn't have any trouble getting on board with the story. "Ender's Game" may not be the best sci-fi film of 2013, but it is safely among this year's better options.
The backstory of "Ender's Game" falls in line with other "hostile alien invasion" films like "Independence Day" and "War of the Worlds." Fifty years before the time of the film, an alien race called the Formics attempted to invade Earth to establish a colony, and were only thwarted by the heroic actions of a commander named Mazer Rackham. The Formics have not returned since, but human leadership has been preparing for what it feels is an inevitable rematch, training gifted youngsters to command drone armies in outer space.
Asa Butterfield plays Ender Wiggin, a gifted cadet who is making his way through the program. Under the watchful eye of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), Ender is guided through the ranks, facing challenges and constant opposition (often from his peers) as he advances through a series of fight simulations. Graff and Anderson are intent on proving Ender's toughness, cutting off communication with his family and largely leaving him to wolves that often only sleep a bunk or two over.
Ender's path toward the Formic showdown eventually encounters a substantial plot twist that, while familiar to book fans, won't be broken down here. Suffice it to say that even though it is faithful to the novel, it is ironically undermined by the excellent quality of the film's CGI.
Speaking of which, "Ender's Game" augments its unique story angle with impressive effects that make full use of the big screen. This is definitely a film worth watching at the theater. The acting and dialogue do the job, though at times the film's tone feels more like that of a young adult adaptation than a hard-core sci-fi tale (which is jarring next to a pair of violent altercations Ender has with his fellow cadets). And while Butterfield does some solid work as a gifted not-quite-underdog, Ender passes through his various trials so quickly that it's hard to develop a depth of character that could truly resonate with audiences.
Ford and Davis provide authority and credibility to their roles (as does Sir Ben Kingsley, who appears late in the film as a special mentor to Ender), but ultimately they only serve to complement the film's central narrative about its protagonist. It is Ender's game, after all. And the outcome of that game will give audiences plenty of material for moral debates in the weeks to come, and maybe a sequel down the road.
"Ender's Game" is rated PG-13 for some vulgar language and a few episodes of intense (if bloodless) violence.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.