It's easy to see why Orson Scott Card's science fiction novel Ender's Game has remained a favorite among young readers over the last 28 years. The story takes place in the not-too-distant future after humanity has barely survived an alien invasion. With the looming prospect of another intergalactic war, it is somehow decided that a new military leader must be found among the preteens of Earth, presumably because they're all so good at multitasking and using computers. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is the ace 12-year-old who must save humanity with his tactical genius and knack for video games. All of which confirms the suspicions of preteens everywhere that adults aren't as smart as they think they are. What's not to love?
The inherent silliness of the Ender's Game premise poses no serious problem for writer/director Gavin Hood's long-awaited film adaptation. It revels in the book's high-tech fantasy world, cuts to the chase by compressing the six years covered in the almost 400-page initial tome to one decisive, action-filled year, and leaves the door open for unlimited sequels to match the dozens of Ender's Game novels, short stories and comic books currently available. The movie is well-crafted and the kids will love it. The rest of us can deal privately with its muddled politics and the troubling sight of world–weary elders — played by Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, no less — training gifted children as soldiers. Ender's Game is surprisingly entertaining as long as you don't think about it too much.
The movie gets a lot of mileage out of some wondrous visual effects, dwelling on its space stations and an alien mothership as if they were works of fine art. The set piece is a zero gravity, 100-meter-wide glass sphere in which the cadets learn to conduct combat in the weightlessness of space. Most of Ender's Game was shot at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East, which was converted into a series of Hollywood-style sound stages built on massive scales. It's probably a lucky thing that no one got a film adaptation together before the current era, as the story relies heavily on digitally created worlds that didn't look anywhere near this convincing before recent leaps in technology.
Ender's Game eventually manages to have its cake and eat it too by gently evolving into an anti-war war movie — or not, as the film is too timid to take political sides and intentionally leaves things wide open to interpretation. The idea of preemptive war — popularized in recent years in the form of the Bush Doctrine — becomes a bone of contention late in the film. But it all feels tacked onto a big-budget movie that essentially offers guts and glory as its only beating heart. Ender's Game will get pushed aside in exactly three weeks when Catching Fire, the first sequel to teen obsession The Hunger Games, arrives in theaters across the country. It looks like November belongs to the kids. — KEN KORMAN