How far should a society go to assure its survival? Should it go as far as to strip a class of children of their innocence – training them to be merciless super-soldiers, in charge of entire fleets? That is the conclusion humanity has come to in "Ender's Game" – based on Orson Scott Card's 1985 young adult novel of the same title – facing an existential, intergalactic threat from an enemy alien species known as the Formics.
Haunted by a Formics invasion 50 years earlier that killed millions before being fended off by a seemingly miraculous act of one Messianic kamikaze pilot (Ben Kingsley), the international community has decided its best hope is finding a new savior among its middle school set. Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) runs a training school for children who exhibit promising qualities where they are molded into killing machines, on a special lookout for "The One," who has the tactical genius and nerve to do away with the Formics once and for all. Much of the training is simulated through video games, but emotional manipulation and personal invasion are also part of the regimen. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a scrawny, blue-eyed 12-year-old, emerges as the best candidate. He has the violent streak that got his older brother (Jimmy Pinchak) kicked out of the program and the empathy that made his sister (Abigail Breslin) too weak for it. This empathy helps Ender understand his enemies, a strategic advantage for certain, but one that makes the prospect of eliminating them a wrenching experience for the boy.
At first it's chilling to watch Ender and his other juvenile comrades – a platonic lady friend (Hailee Steinfeld), a tyrannical rival (Moises Arias), a reformed bully (Conor Carroll), and the rest of their prepubescent crew (Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Khylin Rhambo) — pushed to acts with increasingly violent connotations, much of it taking place on a spaceship boarding school where the students are grouped in competing armies, The laser guns they wield for their zero gravity Color Wars may just temporarily debilitate their competitors. However, the transformation of their young psyches may be more of permanent damage, so fears Graff's second-in-command, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis).
More concerning still is how quickly the film acclimates you to this premise. You cheer Ender on as he outsmarts the video games, leads his squad to victory in what amounts to battle school's intramural championship and earns the attention of his elders. However, Ender is not so quick to entirely abandon his innocence. When the skills he's honed in the virtual world have serious percussions when employed in reality, he questions the expectations to which he's being held.
Ender's misgivings aside, he's tapped to lead a preemptive strike on the Formics, as the termite-looking aliens, though retreated to their home planet, appear to be gearing up for war. Ender's training accelerates, with the pressure of human survival bearing down. A culminating battle simulation will decide whether Ender really can save humanity, at a cost that only he seems to understand.
"Ender's Game" was written with a young adult audience in mind, so older viewers with any sense of history or science fiction tropes will probably not be surprised how the film bends into a parable of fascism, imperialism and genocide. Nevertheless, even though the original text was written some 20 years ago, its film adaptation brings forward current debates on drone warfare, video game culture and post traumatic stress disorder. (Outdated are the author's extracurricular anti-gay views – absent from the story at hand but prompting a boycott of the film nonetheless). "Ender's Game" is a crisp, compelling entree into the growing genre of young adult film adaptations that puts kids in violent situations, joining the "Hunger Games" trilogy and an upcoming film adaptation of the "Divergent" series.
Unlike those adaptations, "Ender's" is a much older story and there's reason to believe that part of holding up its journey to the big screen was the technology to visualize Card's imaginative text. In this sense, "Ender's Game" is slick but not mind-blowing. Nor does it stand to hold the significance of the sci-fi greats from which it pulls much influence. Yet, with a solid performances by the young cast as well as the older A-listers, and a to-the-point script, screenwriter and director Gavin Hood manages to pull of an entertaining and thought-provoking film.