For loyal fans of Orson Scott Card's classic sci-fi novel "Ender's Game," the film adaptation might as well be subtitled "As Good As It Gets."

Considering the weighty source material and complex, sprawling story line with which director/screenwriter Gavin Hood was working, "Ender's Game," which clocks in at just under two hours, couldn't have made its translation from page to screen much more convincingly.

In the not-too-distant future, Earth has been ravaged by an attack from an alien race called the Formics. Barely fighting them off, thanks to the heroics of legendary pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), the human race has spent several decades preparing for the Formics' return. It's been decided that only highly trained children will have the ability to defeat the enemy. Enter Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a conflicted child-genius who possess the right combination of intelligence, empathy and killer instinct that Col. Hyrum Graff (the appropriately gruff Harrison Ford) wants for his training program.

Being one of the youngest and smallest recruits at Graff's in-orbit Battle School, Ender is the underdog in every situation, and that's partially by Graff's design. If he's going to save the human race, Ender has to endure everything his fellow humans can throw at him to ensure him a chance against the Formics. His struggles bring about a moral dilemma: Is it acceptable to turn a child into a killing machine, even if it's for the greater good? It's something over which Graff and his immediate underling, Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis), clash.


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Butterfield shines at the center of it all. He impeccably balances intensity with convincing emotion as a brilliant, isolated child under intense pressure who really just wants to play computer games and be with his sister, Valentine (played fantastically by Abigail Breslin in a role considerably smaller than in the novel). Hailee Steinfeld plays Ender's Battle School companion Petra Arkanian, giving the character more passion and humanity than originally written.

But even with a smart story that's well-adapted and bolstered by good acting, "Ender's Game's" top asset is its special effects. The Battle School scenes, where "armies" of trainees square off in zero gravity, are simply riveting (I can't wait to see the video games this movie spawns). Where some films spend too much time with computer-generated graphics, "Ender's Game" gives you just enough, and they get better as the film goes on.

One of the flaws of the story is its predictable outcome. So the question becomes not what happens, but how it happens. The story involves a major twist (full of moral implications) that director Hood handles well, pumping extra, believable human emotion into the final scenes.

Serious fans of the books may complain about what was left out, while those unfamiliar with the novel may get a bit confused at times (I heard people espousing both opinions while leaving the theater). This was not an easy book to adapt to the big screen -- it's one reason why it took years to make "Ender's Game." One major subplot was left out, and other ideas were tailored for a better fit.

But give Hood credit: "Ender's Game" truly captures the spirit and intensity of what is one of the most popular sci-fi stories of all time.

Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.

'ENDER'S GAME'

* * *

Rating: PG-13 (violence, some of which involves children)
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis
Director: Gavin Hood
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

INSIDE

Should "Ender's Game" author Orson Scott Card's controversial stance against gay marriage dampen our enthusiasm for the movie? Page 3