A war between humankind and an alien-insect race known as the Formics rages on in the vastness of space in writer-director Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic Ender’s Game. This conflict, however, has little bearing on Earth’s general populace, as the military now primarily exists as a large-scale technology outfit with young adults commanding drone ships from virtual consoles. War is secondhand, and the film doesn’t let you forget the vague, sophomoric implications of all this jazz in the age of drone warfare, even as it eludes saying anything remotely personal about death and violence.
The story of Ender’s Game is timely, but the film stalls out on portentous backstory. In fact, the first two-thirds is essentially the preface to one grave climactic battle that dominates the final 40 or so minutes of the film. (Even Card admitted he wrote the source material as a way of explaining the background of his hero in Speaker for the Dead, the follow-up to Ender’s Game.) The only minor thrill in the first hour comes from the inciting incident, a fight where our eponymous hero (Asa Butterfield) puts his adversary in the hospital, showing a violent, fascist philosophy that attracts the attention of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) of the International Fleet. After some him-hawing, Graff more or less adopts Ender, an ostensible orphan due to population-control laws. Of course, freedom isn’t free, and Ender’s newfound acceptance is dependent on his success in the International Fleet, which—shocker!—is a breeze for the prodigious pupil.
The scant immediate action comes from training sequences in a zero-gravity hub, and Hood utilizes Stebe Jablonsky’s bloated score to add ample false urgency to the exercises. For the most part, training is treated as all death-or-glory moments, which hints at a blurring of the lines between preparation and action in modern warfare; it goes nowhere, sadly. Despite Hood and Jablonsky’s best efforts, it’s clear from the outset that Ender is, at least in his abilities, some sort of infallible military prophet. None of his conflicts, whether with Battle School bully Bonzo (Moises Arias) or with Command School disciplinarian Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), feel as if there’s anything at stake, because the filmmakers overtly telegraph the fact that he’s the proverbial One. And whereas Ender’s accidental paralyzing of Bonzo allows the film to at least feign a moral center, Hood’s script, with its clunky, familiar exchanges and pronouncements, turns Rackham into a mere cynical echo of Graff.
The characters are barely detailed outside of their sexes: The women are caregivers who nurture Ender’s talent and thoughtful side, while the men either challenge or praise him. This gives every relationship a coldly schematic feeling, each conversation meant only to communicate plot points. And when Ender finally realizes the folly of his aggressive, winner-take-all philosophy and the consequences come into glaring relief, Hood treats it as little more than the beginning of Ender’s next saga, another inciting incident rather than an ending, underlined by a presumptuous sequel-baiting conclusion. The only thing remotely engaging about the film is its muscular visual effects and, to a lesser, degree, its production design: When Ender and his fellow cadets float out into the gargantuan training room, one feels the freedom of space and gets a sense of the immense tactical know-how it would take to create controlled maneuvers in such an environ. Hood relays a vague sense of what it’s like to live in duty, and yet at a distance from one’s home, but this vision of the future never rouses, never asks to be remembered. The same goes for Hood’s film on the whole, which isn’t the right foot to be starting out on when pitching a would-be saga.