In step with its sensitive, tactically brilliant 12-year-old hero, “Ender’s Game” is a bit of a tweener, neither triumph nor disaster, a war-games fantasy with a use-by date of Nov. 22, when the new “Hunger Games” movie comes out.
Its central action scenes unfold in a vast zero-gravity battle-simulation arena, on a space station readying for an alien attack of enormous skittery bugs called Formics. The preteens and young teenagers being trained to save the world play dangerous rounds of laser tag and try to impress the authority figures played by Harrison Ford (a long way from Han Solo), Viola Davis and Sir Ben Kingsley. Asa Butterfield of “Hugo” is Ender Wiggins, the relentlessly bullied boy with the Hobbitty-sounding name who becomes “Earth’s ultimate military leader,” in the words of the film’s promotional materials. Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit” is Petra, his sympathetic best friend and training mentor. They’re sweet together, these kids. Already, Butterfield and Steinfeld are learning the virtue of behaving on camera, as opposed to acting each tense encounter into the ground.
When a best-seller such as Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” takes a generation or more to find its way to the screen, the result can acquire an unwanted aura of retro-nostalgia, whatever the story’s setting or the director’s approach. The look of this project, reflected by the film’s poster, settles for futuristic industrialism made generic. Still, while writer and director Gavin Hood may not be Mr. Style or a science-fiction visionary, he gets the story told, with appealing actors at the center.
Across nearly three decades, many young readers have devoured Card’s books (the original, the four sequels, plus two spinoff adventures) as expressions of rebellious outsiders with a cause. Ender is a freak by definition simply by being a “third,” the third-born child in a near-future world ruled by a strict two-child policy. The violence in Ender’s life is nearly always justified since he’s dealing with dead-eyed sociopaths his own age who wish to do him harm. Then comes the not-so-twisty twist near the climax of the story, which asks the audience to grieve and question a different scale of violence. (Spoiler issues here, so we’ll keep mum.)
Hood’s adaptation streamlines the novel and its concerns, only occasionally lapsing into trailer-speak, as when Ford’s commander speaks to his recruits in the language of movie-trailer-ese (“and in the middle of the battle, a legendary hero emerged”). At heart, “Ender’s Game” relays a simple story of a little guy caught in a web not of his own making, learning to stand up for his beliefs. The target audience could do worse. The old folk, meantime, can focus on the film’s most intense stare-down contest: Though I don’t believe they ever share a scene, it’s astonishing nonetheless how Kingsley and the main Formic handle close-ups in exactly the same way, never, ever, ever, ever blinking. Ever.