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 such a “best hope,” chosen for Battle School, selected to be a leader because Young Adult fiction desperately needs another “chosen one.”
“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 multi-task combat duties and reason out strategies for battle success in an instant. Card’s military meritocracy, on the screen, plays like “Starship Troopers” without a tongue-in-cheek touch to its fascism, “The Last Starfighter” without the wit.
But 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, formed into teams 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 in his turn.
Butterfield (“Hugo”) makes a fine all-business soldier-in-the-making, but barely suggests a mind that is broadening in spite of the narrow, kill-or-be-killed focus of his training. Moises Arias and Hailee Steinfeld are well-cast as part of this distinctly multi-cultural school of the best and the brightest, and the movie perks up quite a bit when Ben Kingsley shows up as that last-stage-in training instructor.
But even taking into account the limitations of an “introduction to a franchise” film, “Ender’s Game” is pretty stiff. Shiny spaceships, vivid space battles (simulations for the trainees) and kids who don’t quite fill out their jumpsuits and cool combat games are all fine. With all the bullying and kids-turned-into-killers stuff, the film never feels less than heavy handed.
So sure, it’s good-looking, cautionary and clever enough. But there’s not much in this “Game” that you’d call thrilling or fun.