Give Hollywood credit for tackling a science fiction novel that contains few of the easy entry points the genre usually provides for cinematic endeavors. In "Ender's Game," there are no cute robot sidekicks, no cool aliens as allies, not even the lightspeed spaceships, laser weapons and other cool hardware that populate the background of such movies.
Instead, it's a grim and bleak look at a future where humanity is facing extinction at the hands of a hive-like race of creatures known as the Formics. Asa Butterfield plays Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a young boy who is also a brilliant strategist, finding himself being trained to lead Earth's defense against the invaders.
(According to the film's narration, children make for better commanders because their ingenuity is not bogged down by straitlaced adult thinking. It's a storytelling conceit; just swallow it and move on.)
The film largely plays out as a long game of psychological warfare and simulated combat, with Ender attending the elite off-world Battle School, where he must go up against his fellow child recruits, his gruff and demanding commander, and eventually the aliens himself. He is forced to hone his instincts for warfare while balancing them against his human compassion, exemplified respectively by his psychopath brother and his compassionate sister (Abigail Breslin).
If you think just because the movie stars a cast of mostly kid actors that it's a good fit for young audiences, think again. While the violence is rather tame and there's no swearing, the mental duress placed upon Ender is quite extreme. Audience members under high school age would likely find it dreary. (Incurious adults, too.)
As a cerebral exercise, though, I found the film challenging and complex, supplying many questions and few easy answers about the morality of waging war. Ender's tactics are genius, but his willingness to sacrifice allies to achieve a win earn him the grudging respect of his teachers and fellow students alike.
(I'm not surprised to learn the book is recommended reading for U.S. Marines officer training.)
As Colonel Graff, Harrison Ford tackles a much darker role than we're used to. Graff sees Ender as his shining star, potentially the savior of humanity, and if that means putting a tender boy through the crucible of harsh lessons, he's more than willing to do it. Viola Davis plays a psychiatrist chartered to nurture Ender's psyche, so naturally she finds herself butting heads with Graff.
Ben Kingsley has a small but vital role as the last of Ender's instructors, a man with a tatooed face and mysterious past. Hailee Steinfeld plays Petra, a fellow cadet who stands up for Ender when he's abused by their team leader.
"Ender's Game" will not suit everyone's tastes. Writer/director Gavin Hood's plotting is sometimes suspect, and the story bogs down a few times. And if you go in expecting a light, action-heavy ripping space yarn, you'll likely walk away disappointed. For me, the moral complexities of the tale were tantalizing and way more ambitious than expected. This is thinking man's sci-fi.