Hailee Steinfeld, left, and Asa Butterfield play children in training to help save Earth from space invaders in 'Ender's Game.' (Summit Entertainment)
Give it this: “Ender’s Game” doesn’t mess around.
As space epics go, it gets going right away, without really dwelling on background or personality. Writer-director Gavin Hood (“Wolverine,” “Rendition”) breaks Orson Scott Card’s well-known young adult classic down to its basics in the name of efficiency.
The result is a fast-moving flick that’s more seen than felt, although the bombastic effects up on the screen are impressive and the story’s basic tragic trajectory still works fully. We may not really know Ender by the film’s conclusion, but we’re certainly aware of what Ender can do.
In the film, Earth is still in shock over an attack 50 years earlier by an insect-looking alien race apparently in search of water. Though the aliens were driven back, millions on earth died, and mankind has been bracing for a follow-up invasion for decades.
That bracing includes sifting through children to find the most agile minds, those open enough to come up with brilliant strategies. The commander in the war to come will be a child.
That is why young Ender (Asa Butterfield from “Hugo”) is on a training ship as the film begins. He is among the chosen ones competing under the strict eyes of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to lead the charge.
Most of the film involves Ender moving up the ranks through competition. At first he’s an outsider, but he proves his mettle both physically — although scrawny, Ender can be both resourceful and vicious — and in terms of strategy.
Much of the competition takes place in a huge, gravity-free chamber where Ender leads his team against others in dazzling, ping-ponging battles. As he moves through the ranks, Ender is also playing a personalized computer game that’s testing his emotional responses, which allows director Hood to insert some astounding animation into the film.
The film follows many classic young-adult tropes. The outsider Ender eventually gathers a ragtag group of assumed losers to his winning team. He faces down a bully and struggles with childhood memories. He develops a platonic relationship with a member of the opposite sex (Hailee Steinfeld) and picks up a personal mentor (Ben Kingsley with a ridiculous face tattoo).
But even as he becomes an über-warrior, Ender begins to wonder — who says the aliens are coming back? And even if they do, shouldn’t we try talking with them rather than leaping into all-out war?
Butterfield’s utterly fragile appearance makes him a perfect Ender — the toughness here is all psychological and intellectual — and the sweetness he brought to “Hugo” is nowhere evident. He doesn’t have a great deal to work with beneath the surface — “Ender’s Game” is all surface — but he still makes the movie work.
This sort of extravagant soap opera is the polar opposite of something like the intimate “Gravity,” still floating through theaters on its way to the Oscars. Crowded (filled with pyrotechnics and covering familiar territory with a few surprises), “Ender’s Game” isn’t a movie you’ve seen but it looks like a movie you’ve seen.
Still, it looks pretty good. More considered than your standard lunk-headed blockbuster and certainly visually engrossing, this game is played well.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material
Running time: 114 minutes