An adaptation of the best-selling science fiction novel of the same name, Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game is what you would hope for in a mid-fall release: big, competent, and engaging enough. Sneaking in before the December Oscar rush, the slight film might not be throwing itself into the ring with the weightier contenders, but does hold its own as a piece of sci-fi young adult fare.
After Earth has been decimated by a bug-alien invasion, the world has adopted a fascist ideology, training youth in the ways of war to prevent further attacks. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) soon rises to the top of his military academy, displaying not only an advanced level of tactical genius, but also a disturbing psychopathic edge. Launched off into space with Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford huffs his way though the role) for elite training, Ender must move through a series of exercises in zero gravity to prove his skill. Along the way, he befriends Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) who helps him to discover his leadership potential. However, the training exercises aren’t what they seem, causing Ender to reevaluate the system he has grown up believing in.
With its vicious bugs and youthful fascist characters, the comparisons to Paul Veroehven’s satirical Starship Troopers are apt. That said, it’s too easy to fully dismiss Ender’s Game as military propaganda (a charge levelled against the book). The movie isn’t all heroics and championing perverse politics, as throughout Hood evokes an unsettling feeling while watching these kids become trained killers. This is what roots the film in something more than mere space escapades, as unlike bloodless young adult franchises like The Hunger Games or Twilight, there’s a real sense of consequence here—kids die and it’s rightly upsetting.
Unbalanced psyches are the core of the movie. While Hood ensures the film is based in strong action sequences set in free-floating space, he further incorporates animation at crucial moments to illustrate Ender’s conflicted inner life. As refreshing as this is, Ender’s Game does wane. Returning to Earth following the accidental death of a comrade, Ender does some predictable soul-searching, complete with pensive lakeside sitting and a teary-eyed confession to his sister (an underused Abigail Breslin). It’s here that the strain of adaptation becomes evident, as Hood begins to explain rather than show how little Ender is suffering. Lacking a real emotional depth, it’s more likely to cause eye-rolling than pull at the heart strings.