Ender’s Game is a tightly plotted, un-bombastic sci-fi movie that has the bad luck of being a relatively faithful adaptation of a novel by Orson Scott Card. Though it can’t overcome the source material’s problematic themes—namely, Card’s intentionalist morality, which prizes a character’s ideals over their actions—or its all-too-convenient characterizations, the film manages a sustained sense of momentum and tone that is rare for a contemporary, big-budget movie. The less viewers think about the movie’s ideological underpinnings, the more likely they are to enjoy its restrained performances and immersive science-fiction visuals.
Set half a century after an attempted invasion of Earth, Ender’s Game follows tactical wunderkind Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) as he is trained and manipulated by an international military coalition to become a commander in a hypothetical future conflict with the aliens. Though indebted to 2010’s Tron: Legacyin terms of sound design and imagery, the movie avoids IMAX-ready centerpieces in favor of focusing on the complicated social maneuvering of Ender’s instructors and peers. The effects-driven sequences—the students’ mock war games—are efficient and purposeful. Back-corridor bargaining and bullying are emphasized, which underlines the impression that this is essentially a high-school story—with Harrison Ford and Viola Davis as teachers trying to decide what to do with a gifted student—in futuristic military drag.
Though it’s largely a virtue, writer-director Gavin Hood’s brisk pacing proves to be something of a liability during the movie’s climactic twist. Hood handles the scene without patronizing; the characters never bluntly state what happened, inviting the audience to realize its implications alongside Ender. However, because Hood proceeds to the next bit of plot as quickly as possible (accompanied, as always, by the arpeggiated chords, walls of synth-brass, and big loud drums of the score), he robs the scene of any emotional potency.
Though Hood significantly compresses the source novel’s epilogue and simplifies its background politicking and violence, he retains the central idea that makes Card’s book so troublesome. Ender is portrayed as a tragic superman who possesses immense destructive power, but can never be held accountable for his actions. He is a victim-hero who can do evil, but remains morally unblemished because of his good intentions—a characterization that appeals to the closet fascist lurking inside every angry teenage boy.