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Review: 'Ender's Game' glumly launches another young adult sci-fi franchise

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

In a future where families are encouraged not to overbreed, Ender Wiggin is “a third,” the third child born to his family. “An extra.”

Skinny and pale, he is bullied at school. But he's been observed, singled out by the state. How he problem-solves during video games, how he copes with bullies — his cunning, ruthlessness and measured compassion — are assets.

“The world's smartest children are our best hope,” military leaders tell each other. And Ender (Asa Butterfield) is chosen for Battle School.

“Ender's Game,” based on Orson Scott Card's novel, is a glossy, humorless march through a future where kids are our best warriors, able to multitask combat duties and reason out strategies for battle success in an instant.

In the hands of South African director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) the story's moral quandary, about kids learning to kill before they learn compassion, stands front and center.

“Ender's Game” follows Ender into Battle School, where his ability to master the skills of combat command are on display at every turn.

“We need a Julius Caesar, a Napoleon,” growls Col. Graff (Harrison Ford).

They're all still children, argues the yin to his yang, Major Anderson (Viola Davis).

Indeed they are — martial, militaristic kids culled from the population and trained for battle in weightless simulations where they learn tactics that will serve them in Earth's war for survival against the Formics, bug-eyed space-travelers who almost conquered Earth decades before.

Ender is not the heartless killer his older brother (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) is, not the empathetic pacifist his sister (Abigail Breslin) turned out to be. Threatened by a rival, he out-thinks, out-negotiates or outfights each one.

Butterfield (“Hugo”) makes a fine all-business soldier-in-the-making. Moises Arias and Hailee Steinfeld are well-cast as part of this distinctly multicultural school of the best and the brightest, and the movie perks up quite a bit when Ben Kingsley shows up.

“Ender's Game” is pretty stiff. It's good-looking, cautionary and clever enough. But there's not much in this “Game” that you'd call thrilling or fun.

Roger Moore is a staff writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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