Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel “Ender’s Game” has been a touchstone for adolescent readers for nearly 30 years, and watching this earnest, respectful film version it’s easy to understand why.
It’s not just that the story of the rise of underappreciated misfit Andrew “Ender” Wiggin to a position of power and respect in the adult world is every bullied youngster’s dream. It’s the added notion that although those wretched adults need you, that won’t stop them from being two-faced, devious and deceitful. Whoever said it was easy being young?
Written and directed by Gavin Hood and starring Harrison Ford and young Asa Butterfield, “Ender’s Game” gains a lot from the ability of its story to touch a nerve. A film for young people to which adults can eavesdrop if they are so inclined, it’s not any more sophisticated than it needs to be. But its strong special effects make its simulated battles effective and, echoing the book, its story line touches on a number of intriguing issues.
Those battles are simulated because the animating notion of “Ender’s Game” is that sometime in the future children who think outside the box can be trained via computer simulations to take the lead in Earth’s coming battle to the death with a race of insects from another planet called Formics.
“Ender’s Game” opens 50 years after the last Formic invasion, when the invading insects (known as “buggers” in the book but thankfully not on screen) were barely stopped from taking over Earth. Those in power on the planet, including Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley with Maori tattoos on his face), have placed their hopes on youth in general and on Ender Wiggin in particular.
While the hero of the novel ages from 6 to 12, the filmmakers have compressed the book’s narrative into one year and convincingly cast 16-year-old Butterfield, last seen as the title character in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” as a roughly 12-year-old Ender.
Despite the age difference, the intense, skinny actor is believable as the young misfit. Butterfield looks appropriately young and has the ability to convey Ender’s awkward nerdiness and ability to empathize with the enemy as well as the Bad Seed moments when his strategically employed but genuine fury gets the best of him.
The third member of his family to be chosen for warfare preparations, after his always-angry brother Peter (a role much reduced in importance from the book) and his empathetic sister Valentine (“Little Miss Sunshine’s” Abigail Breslin), Ender often feels like the runt of the litter.
He has a powerful ally, however, in Col. Hyrum Graff, the commander of Battle School, an orbiting space station where serious warrior training takes place.
Played by Harrison Ford in the gruff taskmaster mode that feels a bit left over from “42’s” Branch Rickey, the Colonel believes Ender is the hoped-for leader and overrides the doubts of his sensitive colleague, Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). Convinced that all Ender needs is to be toughened up, the Colonel places him in increasingly difficult situations and monitors the results.
Ender, who has no idea any of this is going on, gets sent to Battle School as a “Launchie” or first-year cadet at the Colonel’s insistence. A bullying superior named Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias) makes his life miserable, but Ender also gains the friendship of Petra Arkanian (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld).
Much of this is as pro forma as it sounds, but the film adds an interesting wrinkle when it introduces an unnerving video game Ender plays that incorporates elements of his own psyche into the proceedings. An eventual meeting with Rackham, the hero of the previous Formic war, leads to the twists that have made the book’s reputation.
Writer-director Hood, whose films range from the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” in his native South Africa to the blockbuster “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” tends to make movies that, like this one, do without nuanced emotions. But “Ender’s Game” has a few ways to counterbalance that.
Unusual in that it is co-produced by major effects house Digital Domain, “Ender’s Game” is invariably worth looking at. Production designed by Sean Haworth and Ben Proctor, the film does well at depicting the action in the zero-gravity Battle Room as well as the grander computer warfare simulations that Ender orchestrates (very much like a conductor would lead a symphony) as his training progresses.
It also helps that Card’s 1985 novel was prescient about issues that still trouble us. Not only are video games considerably more sophisticated today, making the story’s key premise that much more plausible, but issues of drone warfare, preemptive strikes and the morality of child soldiers are on society’s mind more than ever. “Ender’s Game” turns out to be our game as well.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, science-fiction action and thematic material
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In general release