"Ender's Game" has all the essentials of great science fiction: a strong storyline, exciting action, characters who feel real even in unreal situations, a terrific climax, an even better coda ... and big ideas. Really big ideas.
It's a fitting version of Orson Scott Card's 1981 novel, which sci-fi fans rank among the best in the genre.
The movie isn't as good as the book - but it comes close.
Ender Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield (right) faces off against a fellow student in “Ender’s Game” played by Moises Arias while Hailee Steinfeld looks on.
Asa Butterfield, of "Hugo," plays Ender Wiggin, a pre-teen recruited by the military in a future era - some 50 years after humanity has fought off a violent attack by extraterrestrials.
Along with dozens of other children, Ender is training for the next encounter with "the Formics"; before long, it becomes clear that army brass feel he alone is clever enough - and vicious enough - to lead the entire fleet and score another miraculous victory.
Card's book is one of those rare sci-fi tomes with wide appeal: Old and young, guys and girls, geeks, readers and non-readers alike - all love this book.
What sets it apart from the jargon-laden, tech-happy gadgetry that turns off non-fans is its blazing heart and soul.
Despite the action - tense training battles and an epic climax, all rendered nicely on screen - "Ender's Game" is really about what it takes to be a successful soldier; the emotional toll of learning to kill quickly and efficiently; the price of standing up to bullies; and seeking to wipe out another race even as you study them enough to start wondering whether they're really that different.
Can't discuss the much bigger ideas generated at the very end, but that's the best part of Card's novel, and the movie handles it beautifully.
Butterfield nails Ender's soft side; viewers will find it easy to empathize with the young man. But he lacks the edgy menace of Card's original.
Thus the bullying scenes don't exude the raw power of the book; in fact, the novel's dark tone - particularly the fear, intimidation and loneliness - has been lightened considerably, with Ender developing genuine friendships among his fellow trainees.
As the officer overseeing Ender, Harrison Ford is magnificent - there's not a false note anywhere in his performance. He too is warmer than his character in the book ... and that's saying something, since the actor himself is known for gruffness and machismo.
But the movie's best acting comes from Abigail Breslin. Yes, she's already established creds in younger roles like in "Little Miss Sunshine," but in this film she makes a bold move toward adult characters. Breslin is clearly someone to keep an eye on.
The effects and visuals are solid, too, though I didn't list them as genre essentials when I started this review.
That's because you can make great sci-fi without them ("Gattaca," "Sleeper," "Children of Men"). But maybe I should've included Harrison Ford.
Can't hurt, right?