A sci-fi treat with plenty of brains

FILM
ENDER’S GAME
Cert 12a | By Simon Thomson
Four Stars

ENDER’S Game is a science fiction adventure about a special boy, sent to a special school, where he is trained to be a ruthless war commander. Basically, it’s Harry Potter. If he’d been sent to a military academy. In space.

The internet has been rather exercised in the run-up to this release, not so much because of the film itself, but because of the guy who wrote the book on which it is based. The conservative Mormon author Orson Scott Card’s pronouncements on a range of topics have raised liberal ire, but it was his trenchant opposition to gay marriage that led the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD to suggest a public boycott. This controversy, coupled with director Gavin Hood having previously helmed one of the least enjoyable movies of recent times, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, rather lowered expectations for Ender’s Game.

It was a surprise, then, to discover that it was actually really good.

Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is part of a program where the smartest kids in the world are trained, in an atmosphere of persistent violence and competition, to fight space battles against the aliens who attacked Earth. The head of the program, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), quickly recognises Ender’s superior tactical and strategic skills, and puts him on the fast track to command. Soon Ender is leading his classmates in a series of increasingly difficult simulations, preparing them to take the fight to the enemy, and somehow Butterfield carries off the transformation from young outsider to Nietzschean super-man.

Ender’s Game is like a more serious Harry Potter, with higher stakes, overtones of fascism, and zero-G laser-tag instead of Quidditch. It’s a movie about kids, but unlike Harry Potter, it’s not a kids’ movie. It is a war movie, where the tension is constant, and decisions are frequently matters of life or death.

Ender’s Game is at its weakest when it waxes philosophical; paying lip-service to the wrongs of using child soldiers, or spouting the pop-psychological belief that when you really understand your enemy, you love them, and in that moment you destroy them. Thankfully though, such babble is kept to a minimum. The other notable faux pas is the casting of Ben Kingsley as a Māori, with traditional tā moko facial tattoos and a dubious (South African?) accent.

Overall, though, Ender’s Game is a success: the assured visuals marry with a restrained score, strong story, and generally solid performances to deliver an involving, understated epic, with a sense of reality.

FILM
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2
Cert U | By Daniel O’Mahony
Four Stars

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 picks up where the first one left off – hapless scientist Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) has saved the world from his own invention, the FLDSMDFR, which turns water into food (hence the title). The twist this time around, the food is alive...

And it’s good fun; packed with enough frenetic slapstick and clever dialogue to entertain kids and adults alike and well worth a watch, whether you’ve seen the first instalment or not. Like many of the best kids’ films, some scenes are gloriously surreal, with some wonderful vistas of Swallow Falls Island covered in oversized food – the fallout from Flint’s zany culinary contraption.

The animation is top-notch, giving each of the food animals their own distinct personalities. Food related puns abound – “there’s a leek in my boat!” – and Will Forte raises a wry smile voicing Chester V, the tech magnate who is a loose limbed, syrupy amalgam of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

While it doesn’t plumb great emotional depths, it gently nudges home a few serious messages. Any moralising, however, is kept in check by the off-kilter wisecracking and well-staged visual gags.

FILM
THE SELFISH GIANT
Cert 15 | By Melissa York
Four Stars

The Selfish Giant is the second film from Clio Barnard, following the much-lauded The Arbor, a harsh and naturalistic study of life on a Bradford council estate.

She returns to these surrounds here but narrows her focus onto the friendship between two troubled 13-year-olds, Arbor and Swifty. Arbor is played by astoundingly confident 14-year-old Conner Chapman. He shines as a fast-talking Artful Dodger type, corrupting Shawn Thomas’ Swifty by getting him to sell scrap metal instead of going to school to help his mum pay off the bailiffs.

Barnard finds her Selfish Giant in Sean Gilder’s Kitten, a sinister scrap metal merchant who is out to exploit the boys’ enterprising enthusiasm.

Arbor soon takes to stealing another collector’s copper to make extra cash, and the consequences are filmed with a quiet but brutal intensity.

You’re lured into caring for these wayward but endearing youngsters, but Barnard cruelly snatches the comfort blanket away.

Much like its namesake – Oscar Wilde’s children’s story of the same name – the end haunts you long after you leave its bleak and frosty world.

MUSICAL
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Shaftsbury Theatre | By Melissa York
Three Stars

Remember that awful film Pearl Harbor, where Josh Hartnett dies in Ben Affleck’s arms and Kate Beckinsale weeps a lot? It was a horrendous exercise in sentimentality over substance; a common trap that befalls many a historical drama. But From Here to Eternity – lyricist Tim Rice’s first musical in ten years and composer Stuart Brayson’s West End debut – tells a much darker story about the harsh realities of military life.

The story follows a non-conformist trio stationed in Hawaii in 1941 in the lead up to the atrocity that dragged the US into the Second World War.

In a theatre landscape awash with family shows, this sweary, camp, violent story about trying to find your identity amidst the uniformity of the army is refreshing. However, interweaving storylines make the action feel episodic, without enough pause between songs to build any momentum of feeling.

This means that, despite highly polished performances – including a notable turn by former Pop Idol-contestant-done-good Darius Campbell – and a few memorable numbers, the emotional impact doesn’t really kick in until the bombs fall and, by then, it’s too late.

FILM
CLOSED CIRCUIT
Cert 15 | By Daniel O’Mahony
Three Stars

FOR A film that begins with the explosion of a massive suicide bomb in Borough Market, Closed Circuit takes a surprisingly long time to get going. For the first half-hour of this twisty legal thriller, the audience is slowly drip-fed information while most of the action takes place off-camera.

Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) is the only surviving suspect, and the stage is set at the Old Bailey for the “trial of the century”. But due to classified government evidence against Erdogan, half of his trial is to be conducted behind closed doors. In these secret sessions, Erdogan is defended by a government Special Advocate, played here by Rebecca Hall.

She’s not allowed any contact with the regular defence lawyer, which proves problematic when it turns out to be an ex-lover, roguish attorney Martin Rose (Eric Bana pictured). The pair spend all of thirty seconds umming and ahhing before deciding to keep their compromising history a secret, flouting their oath and drawing them into a slowly emerging conspiracy.

Tense cross-examination scenes are brilliantly executed thanks to a commanding performance from Hall as Claudia Simmons-Howe. But there are also moments when it feels like the film is conspiring against itself – not least by casting a lacklustre Eric Bana.

Steve Knight’s script sets out a great plot with some strong ideas, but the structure feels imbalanced. It climaxes at the end of the second act, failing to sustain the tension through to the finale.

But despite its flaws, Closed Circuit is a thought-provoking, if slightly clumsy dive into the murkier depths of the legal system.