RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 4)
Like The Last Starfighter and War Games, Ender’s Game is very much porn for video game addicts. Those like me, who spend countless hours toiling away head-shotting zombies, teabagging fallen Halo opponents and speed-running Super Mario World levels like to believe that we’re actually accomplishing something. Somehow, some way, we’re developing skills that will not only better their lives in some undetermined way, but also rescue humanity from alien annihilation.
In the world of Ender’s Game, gamers are king. Humanity is pitted against an ant-like species of warmongering aliens, and the high command calls upon young gamers to save us all with their quick-twitch skills, stratagems and ability to munch Doritos while playing iPad games with mind controls and swapping DMs with Twitter crushes and maintaining their spots on the Angry Birds Friends leaderboards.
The name is Ender, and the game is making space shrapnel of aliens. While almost no video game adapted from a movie has ever been worthwhile, this is the rare case in which such a product might work, if only because the movie pretty much is a video game, complete with Xbox 360-level graphics (not a compliment), boss battles and the cinematic equivalent of grinding for experience points.
Asa Butterfield, who was the little kid in Hugo, takes on the weighty lead role. It’s up to him to carry the movie, which is no simple task in a cast lined with the likes of Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis. He’s well up to the task. able to seem as cocky as Top Gun Tom Cruise while also managing to retain the underdoggedness of a Karate Kid Ralph Macchio. It’s a tough balancing act, but Butterfield nails it with his take on Ender, showing daffodil vulnerability blended with the ability to spontaneously flip out into prison-shank crazy-eye mode,
Called upon to be mankind’s savior — he’s that good at Black Ops II, I guess — Ender gets escorted by Han Solo up to a space station, where he trains with other snot-nosed brats who could do things on Candy Crush Saga that could make you weep. It’s gratifying to see Ender stare down these punks, out-strategize them and manipulate his way to victory time and again. Ender’s Game is all about strategic gambits, arts of war and game theory exploits, as well as the old-fashioned technique of grabbing statues to smash bullies over the head with, then hammering them with Mafia-style circle kicks one they’re on the ground.
Under the somewhat creepy and leering guidance of Indiana Jones, Ender shoots up the ranks, groomed to become supreme commander leader of the galactic forces, or something. He also struggles to maintain his humanity, catching himself slipping into the stone cold killer profile that his leaders want him to become, while also trying to start a little side action with the only girl in the entire academy (Abigail Breslin), the ultimate proof that a grrrl gamer can get any dude she wants.
Ignore the mildly awful special effects and you’ll be able to enjoy watching Ender play his video game without ever passing the controller to you. It’s a fun, popcorn-munching movie that isn’t afraid to make you ponder the big questions. Such as shouldn’t we care more about evil ant aliens feelings rather than try to blast their brains out? Would it be worth it to rob kids of their childhoods in order to exploit their skills and serve the greater good of society? And, most importantly, if I do really, really well at Grand Theft Auto V, when will Rick Deckard come take me up to his space station?
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Ford, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on the Orson Scott Card novel. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13.