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Photo: Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

In Ender’s Game, a sensitive boy is given responsibility for the very survival of mankind. No wonder Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel has resonated so strongly with youthful readers. Writer-director Gavin Hood has retained that appeal in his vivid adaptation, beginning with his choice of Asa Butterfield as the heroic but all-too-human adolescent Ender Wiggin.

In fact, every role is perfectly cast, from the bullies who badger the brainy boy to Harrison Ford as the cold-blooded officer who puts his faith in children to fight Earth’s impending battle because they’re so intuitive—especially in gaming. He sets his sights on Ender because the youngster combines a strategic mind with a killer instinct. Ender’s weakness, in the colonel’s mind, is empathy for his enemy, which is also the most intriguing aspect of the story. It will have repercussions, both large and small, right up to the finale.

The futuristic setting of the piece is beautifully—and convincingly—realized in Sean Haworth and Ben Procter’s production design, but it’s the emotional quotient that dominates and drives the film. That’s an enormous credit to South African actor-turned-filmmaker Hood, who earned an Academy Award for his powerful 2005 film Tsotsi. But I’m not convinced that it’s necessary, or beneficial, to have shot so much of the picture in ultra closeup, especially having seen it on a giant IMAX screen. Staring at actors’ freckles and up their nostrils isn’t my idea of great moviemaking. Thoughtful drama, acted as well as this, plays just fine in medium shots, too.

Viola Davis-Enders Games-680
Photo: Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Worse, the story’s momentum flattens out at a certain point. As it is, Hood had to streamline Card’s weighty novel, and I’m sure it was difficult to decide what to leave out…but even more pruning might have resulted in a more cogent and consistent film. My attention waned at the three-quarter mark and was never fully restored.

I can’t fault the acting. Butterfield is extraordinarily good as the precocious Ender, and he’s surrounded by fine actors of all ages: Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Aramis Knight, Moises Arias, and Nonso Anonzie, to name just a few.

Because it deals so directly with fundamental issues relating to family, friendship, individuality, and authority, I’m sure teenagers will respond strongly to Ender’s Game. What’s more, they don’t seem to mind movies that go on too long. I can’t ignore my reservations, but I readily award the movie an A for effort.