Some big ideas — like war and peace — are rolling around in “Ender’s Game,” a science-fiction drama that stifles its own message within the hermetically sealed sterility of a video game.
Adapting Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, writer-director Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) introduces us to a future Earth whose military is preparing for a second attack from the Formics, antlike aliens whose first strike 50 years earlier killed millions of humans before they were repelled by the heroic actions of pilot Mazer Rackham.
Part of that preparation involves training young children via video-game simulations. One such child is Ender Wiggin (played by “Hugo’s” Asa Butterfield), an undersized 11-year-old boy who is bullied by older, bigger students. The head of the training program, Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), sees Ender’s tactical skills and his barely contained talent for violence as benefits, and moves him quickly into the next level of training: Battle School, on an orbiting space station.
In Battle School, Ender trains in zero-gravity war-games exercises, while Graff insists that he remain isolated from the other students — over the objections of the school’s psychologist, Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). In spite of Graff’s orders, Ender builds friendships with some students, namely the rebellious Petra Arkanian (“True Grit’s” Hailie Steinfield), while antagonizing senior students.
All the while, Ender aims to balance his emotions between the violent and the compassionate, using as his guides his sociopath big brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and his sensitive sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin).
In the movie’s third act, the action progresses to Command School, where Ender and his cohorts drill in simulated battle scenarios — and where Ender learns some shattering secrets. (This is where Ben Kingsley pops up in a pivotal role.)
Throughout the film, Ender confronts the battle-hardened Graff, challenging him over the reasons behind what appears to be an inevitable war. Ford’s Graff delivers warmongering pronouncements that make Dick Cheney sound like a cockeyed optimist — and his bellicose stance becomes monotonous in the face of young Ender’s thoughtfulness.
But the emotional push-and-pull that Ender is enduring, the motor that is meant to drive the entire film’s narrative thrust, is flattened by waves of technically proficient but visually bland special effects. From the zero-gravity training sessions to the holodeck-like battle simulators, every moment of “Ender’s Game” feels less like a thrilling movie and more like watching someone else play a video game.
A child is trained to be a space warrior in a sterile science-fiction adventure.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material.
Running time • 114 minutes.