Heavy exposition drains energy from 'Ender's Game'

The Fresno BeeOctober 30, 2013 

Asa Butterfield as Ender in a scene from "Ender's Game."

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The big problem with basing a movie on a series of books is that the first offering in the set can be filled with endless exposition and background. That's not a problem when the reader can dive into the next novel where the action often picks up dramatically. Such a structure in film is not as pleasing.

That's the case with the big-screen version of "Ender's Game," a film based on the book series by Orson Scott Card. Even the author has said the main purpose of his "Ender's Game" short story and then book was to set up the character of Ender for the book "Speaker for the Dead."

There was room for more. Steeped in political messages, "Ender's Game" deals with a future where Earth is struggling after a devastating attack by an alien race known as the buggers.

Adults have figured out that youngsters have a better aptitude for the kind of high-tech battles that are going to be waged. The trick is to find the one gamer who has both the skill and the strategy to lead a pre-emptive strike on the buggers. They are said to have weapons of mass destruction, and it's better if Earth strikes first.

The film is a long journey as Ender (Asa Butterfield) grows into Earth's savior; there's very little time devoted to emotional moments that would have defined the character. There are hints of what could have been, from Ender's siblings who failed in their efforts to become the great leader to a brush with romance with another candidate. But they are quickly passed over.

Even the relationship between Ender and his gruff commander (Harrison Ford) never develops beyond the superficial elements of science fiction.

Long scenes of Ender training and talking about training leave little time for plot points that could have given the movie more depth. There certainly should have been more time given to the discussion of the significance of such a military move especially being handled by youngsters.

Instead, the script by director Gavin Hood and Card spends more time on preparation than participation. What should have been the movie's huge emotional moment ends up flat because of the way the story is built.

Butterfield handles the role with ease but never seems to have the wide-eyed kind of innocence that a character like Luke Skywalker showed in the "Star Wars" films when he learned he was to be the savior of a galaxy. The emotional force is strong in Ford, but there are just not enough moments for him to show that this is more than just his first acting role in space since his Han Solo days.

Abigail Breslin is wasted as Ender's sister as she's reduced to one pep talk and a few hugs. And, while Ben Kingsley has shown great skill in the past, his salute to Mike Tyson in this film (and his goofy work previously in "Iron Man 3") show that Kingsley's acting orbit is beginning to wobble.

If "Ender's Game" was a Saturday morning TV series, like "Power Rangers," it would have been fine. There would have been time to finally get to more than all of those training sessions. It also would have also helped if Hood hadn't directed the movie as if it was aimed at 8-year-olds with flashy accents replacing any serious plot points.

Watching this adaptation of "Ender's Game" is like looking over the shoulder of someone playing a space video game. It's entertaining for a while, but eventually there needs to be more.

Movie review

"Ender's Game," rated PG-13 for science fiction violence. Stars Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis. Directed by Gavin Hood. Running time: 114 minutes. Grade: C-

Theaters and times

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355.

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