Ender Wiggin is a budding fascist in the distant future, a slight but cold-blooded preteen drafted to command a genocide mission. The kid's a killer, with blue eyes always seeming ready to cry. He is "the one" every endangered planet and sci-fi saga set there-in requires.
What Ender isn't — for better and worse — is another Luke Skywalker or Last Starfighter or any other savior kid in space movies. Plenty of ideas float through Ender's Game but the notion of honing a child into a war machine is one that sticks. Writer-director Gavin Hood's adaptation of Orson Scott Card's novel doesn't offer much else, bottled up with battle jargon and special effects debris as it is.
Asa Butterfield is as chilly playing Ender as he was charming as Hugo. Already the runt of the bunch at a lockstep military school, Ender would be bullied anyway for his video game superiority and smugness about it. He's being groomed by gruff Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) to command forces against Formics, space bugs whose attempt to invade Earth was thwarted by the heroism of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). The Formics are returning in a month or so, so Ender's on the fast track.
Ender's Game isn't interesting for the big showdown between Ender's equally young army of drone jockeys and Formics. That happens before you know it, unless you read Card's book. The movie's scarcity of action on that front beyond battle simulations in Xbox-level special effects will disappoint thrill seekers. Plus the Formics are uninteresting until the sequel-setting finale, and then not much more.
No, Ender's Game is interesting for its general oddness and the process of exploiting Ender's killer instincts, often through mental abuse orchestrated by Graff and Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis). Ford's low-key line deliveries telegraph menace and Davis mostly frets but among the cadets there's a Lord of the Flies meets Full Metal Jacket vibe worth attention.
Yet the story's still silly enough to let a zero-gravity game of Lasertag — a cross between Quidditch and a John Woo shootout — settle the question of who'll save Earth. And that victory will be at the hands of an ultra-Xbox wizard. Regardless of its fascist undertones, Ender's Game works better as validation for all those hours and thumbs spent playing video games.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.