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Cinema Signal: Planetary war. Green, for Go! MOBILE version |
. "Ender's Game"

The greatest strength of this movie is the feature that's bound to limit its boxoffice potential. Despite plenty of action and knockout futuristic cgi effects and design, the central focus is the mental dynamics of a teenager selected by an establishment officer. You don't think that's a little unusual?

People call the lad Ender (Asa Butterfield, "The Wolfman"). Full name: Andrew Wiggin, a slender boy who doesn't look like he could survive a pillow fight. But you never know. This is about spotting a young person who might envision a novel and unexpected way to wage an impending war against a nearly indestructible enemy, so it's more about mentality than muscle and, hence, not the sort of movie subject likely to attract the targeted teen crowd for astronomical box office numbers or, for that matter, great ratings.

Based on the novel by Orson Scott Card, written and directed by actor Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), this adventure is the tale of our planet which, in 2086, (we're looking at it as though that year is back in time) was invaded by an alien species called formics, huge insects with massive mandibles, which invades Earth with a formidable army and spaceships the size of a small cloud.

Amazingly, Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley, "Iron Man 3"), had gotten the better of them with a daring counterattack that halted the invasion and saved Earth. But it was a sacrifice move and Rackham is never seen again.

Though the aliens were defeated, the American military continues to believe that we haven't seen the last of these scary, intelligent invaders, and has been monitoring cadets with cranial transmitters to find the one teenager who might have the skills to command our defense with new strategies against a new enemy. To that end, transmitter buttons have been attached to the back of the necks of a diverse, high-achieving group of candidates, and connected to brain sensors.

Gruff Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford, "Cowboys & Aliens") is like the baseball scout trying to spot the next Babe Ruth as he and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, "The Help") monitor the brain images of their latest class. They observe Ender winning a virtual game against the overbearing Cadet Stilson.

This bully can't take a defeat and comes with his gang of followers to take Ender down and get his betting money back. The challenge arouses the colonel's and the major's interest. How will this relatively scrawny teenager, roughly half his anatagonist's weight, going to handle the situation?

When Graff observes Ender's use of martial arts to subdue his oversized halfwit, and lapses into a murderous rage that belies all considerations of size and temperament, the scout's antenna starts to tingle. Graff is more than a little impressed by Ender's capacity for tactical fighting and a level of aggression that could distinguish a true warrior.

When Ender gets orders to have the neck transmitter removed, he's deeply disappointment over what he thinks means being washed out of the program. He shares his feelings with his beloved sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin, "Little Miss Sunshine") with whom he maintains a very deep affection and attachment. But, having the transmitter removed proves to be something else. He has been chosen for Battle School. His training begins, and the skills and combat originality he demonstrates reward Graff's estimates of the boy's potentials.

My personal commendation goes to the writers (novel and screenplay) for making this as much about the care and development of a special balance of aptitude, aggression, intelligence and in-the-moment battle decisions as it is about disobedience to superior officers mired in traditions. The theme of young thinking against the old. Yet, it was an adult who formulated the idea that victory would reside in a younger man -- an idea that is both novel and refreshing.

The training consists of combat drills between the school's teams and simulations of space war that produces stunning futuristic visuals that are as inventive as anything seen recently. Through this, Ender forms a relationship with Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld, "Truegrit"), who seems the token female in the man's military. Utterly helpful and perhaps a wee bit attracted to this emerging leader, she teaches him to shoot the high energy ray gun with which they are all armed.

There is no time wasted on human relationships outside the context of war games though Petra tends to suggests the possibility of a building romance. That feeling is reserved for the mission, however, despite the sweetness and concern that fetching Steinfeld exudes for Ender. We just have to settle for a hint of a romance.

It's this emotional restraint that I expect will account for restraint at the boxoffice. Yet, "Ender's Game" held my interest every minute as the logic of the concept and the daring of the central character played out. Hood's development of a future warrior unlike any we've seen before -- because he has a totally unique mind and aptitude for it -- was enough to keep me absorbed. The futuristic psychology is all very cranial, of course, and there's no apology for it. And, despite an injection of a controversial morality in the finale intended as the key to a sequel, I appreciated the emphatic glorification on reason and the power of unique mentality.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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