Back in the game: Harrison Ford returns to space in ‘Ender’s Game’

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"Ender's Game" is playing at La Grande and Baker City theaters.
Yahoo! movies "Ender's Game" is playing at La Grande and Baker City theaters.

Yahoo! movies
“Ender’s Game” is playing at La Grande and Baker City theaters.

By Rob Lowman

Daily News, Los Angeles

”H-a,” Asa Butterfield catches himself. “I mean Harrison, of course. I almost said Han.”

The young actor was talking about his co-star, Harrison Ford, who was Hans Solo in “Star Wars,” in the big screen adaptation of “Ender’s Game,” a sci-fi film that is both thought-provoking and action-filled. Set on a future Earth, it tells the story of young Ender Wiggins (Butterfield), a misfit genius, who because of his brilliant strategic abilities is recruited to fight a space war against alien enemies using sophisticated video game-like simulators.

Ford plays Col. Hyrum Graff, who has spotted Ender as a potential savior of the species. But he has a complicated relationship with the youth. While he drives Ender to become a merciless soldier, Graff understands he is squeezing the humanity out of the boy.

“Manipulator and mentor: The moral issues of what my character, Graff, puts Ender through are what interested me when I read the script,” says the 71-year-old Ford, looking dapper in a gray suit, a small ringed silver earring and colorful socks.

The screenplay is by director Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Rendition”) and is based on the beloved 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card of the same name. It’s one of those books that Hollywood has been trying to make into a movie for years, but no one could figure out the logistics. Hood compressed the time frame — turning six months into less than a year — and eliminating some of the subplots.

The novel was prescient when it was written, seeing the incredible impart the Internet and videogames — both in their infancy then — would have on the world. It also anticipated drone warfare. But at its heart, the novel is very humanistic, raising a number of moral and ethical questions, which Hood and his actors did not want to sacrifice just to make a big-budget sci-fi picture.

While there is no shortage of action, “Ender’s Game” also gives audiences something to ponder. In the story, Earth had been attacked by alien race called Formics, whose own planet — like ours — is overpopulated and running out of resources. After the invasion is beaten back and the aliens retreat, humans decide to go on the offensive, creating military camps for the world’s children in order to be ready for another strike. Eventually, though, the thinking by Graff and others in command is toward a pre-emptive strike to eliminate the enemy.

“There’s no easy answer for any of these things because it’s not black and white,” observes Ford. “We’ve always trained young people because young people make our best soldiers. They are the fittest. It’s always been the business of war to raise soldiers from the youngest members of society, but it’s a moral issue worth thinking about.”

The actor sees the movie as an opportunity for families to talk about such issues.

The subject hits home for the South African native Hood, whose “Tsotsi” won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

“I was conscripted in 1981 at 17,” Hood says. “I lost a close friend in Angola, and it made me very distressed and angry. It also made me question whether I should have been there or not. Why were CIA guys part of my training outfit? What was really going on? Was it about diamonds and oil reserves? Who knows about the layers and layers of complexity?”

The filmmaker says the experience made him make choices about how he lived his own life.

“I want audiences to see the choice Ender is making,” he says.

Hood says they looked at hundreds of young actors before finding Butterfield (“Hugo”) to play the child warrior. They then shot the film in sequence for a couple of reasons, one of them being that the now 16-year-old Butterfield grew about three inches during filming (and three more since). For the role, the young English actor had to go through some rigorous physical training, similar to a military boot camp where he also learned to salute and march.

Ender, an outlier, is bullied by the older boys and competitors in the military camps and must defend himself, so he often finds himself in brawls, which were staged with a degree of brutality rather than comic-book style. There are also fights in the battle room where cadets compete in war games. Digital Domain created the computer-generated details for the weightless atmosphere and other effects in the movie, but Butterfield and the actors who play cadets soared around hooked to wires for the combat sequences.

“The people who hooked us into the wires were from Cirque du Soleil,” says Butterfield.

The self-described an average teenager back home in London, Butterfield realizes that he’s just a normal teen “except for this,” referring to his film career, and the movie, in which he eventually had to have a face off with an actor with the stature of Ford. A “massive” sci-fi fan, Butterfield says it was a great experience to work with longtime Hollywood star, who first grew to fame in “Star Wars.”

“Harrison brought out the best out of all us young actors,” Butterfield says.

Another reason Hood shot “Ender’s Game” in sequence, he says, is that he wanted Butterfield to grow in confidence during the film, so that his character could stand up to Ford’s Graff during the film’s dramatic finale.

“Harrison’s iconic status really helped in Asa’s performance,” says Hood.

Some have noted that “Ender’s Game” is Ford’s first space film since 1983’s “Return of Jedi,” his final “Star Wars” film.

“I don’t see it being a big deal, whether it’s science fiction or anything else,” the actor says. “Imagination is really focused on trying to create real useful human relationships and emotional context for the audience. So I don’t really care what color the wallpaper is. It doesn’t mean anything special.”

The actor recalls that during the filming of “Star Wars,” the crew used plastic car kits to build spaceships, “cutting them out and gluing pieces onto balsa wood and putting them on a stick and flying it past a camera. The effects worked then because they were accompanied by great music.”

Ford says that while he appreciates what computers can do now to generate imaginary landscapes, he notes that it can also can be distracting.

“What happens too often is that with a few more keystrokes, instead of facing an army of 100, you are facing off against an army of 10,000. And all of a sudden, you have lost human scale where you don’t feel the threat. You can generate effects to the point where they don’t serve the story as much as they should,”he says.

This year has seen Ford playing craggy Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey in the hit Jackie Robinson biopic “42,” and an aging tech mogul in “Paranoia.” Next year, he’ll be seen in Sylvester Stallone’s action film “Expendables 3.”

“The only action I had was flapping my gums,” he jokes.

“Roles are different now for me, and I’m quite happy about that,” Ford says. “I get a chance to play character parts that weren’t offered to me when I had the leading man job. I’m quite happy to have character parts, which is what I always wanted to do. Starting out, I never thought I’d be a leading man. That was fun, that was great, but this is different and this is fun for me.

“Someone asked me recently about being an icon. It’s a word that keeps showing up, and I don’t know what it means to them because it doesn’t mean anything to me. It just means I’m still around, and that’s the way they consider me. But I love these opportunities of playing different kind of roles.”

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