Set in the future and focused on outer-space warfare, the 1985 novel Ender's Game seems tailor-made for a movie treatment. But the book is better, as is often the case.
For Orson Scott Card's novel to be as beloved as it is, there's gotta be some heart lurking somewhere in the story. The film Ender's Game engages the mind in some uncomfortable ways, but it does not engage the heart.
That odd omission could be intentional in this movie, which feels like a strange mashup of Starship Troopers and Harry Potter. The story centers on gifted kids who go to a fascist military school. Decades after Earth repelled an invasion by "Formics," alien insects that killed tens of millions of humans, the planet is preparing for another attack. All children are being trained for battle in the hopes that a new "Julius Caesar or a Napoleon" will emerge and win the war decisively. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is plucked from his regular school to attend the exclusive orbiting Battle School, because its leaders (Harrison Ford and Viola Davis) think he could be the legendary genius they're looking for.
What makes Ender stand out? He accidentally stumbled upon the strategy Earth's leaders believe is needed to defeat the Formics: preemptive assholery on a personal level and preemptive war on a societal one. It's prison rules as a cultural philosophy. Beat up the biggest badass in the yard to prevent him from even thinking about beating you up in the future.
Ender's Game is all might-makes-right in its justification of violence. Ender himself articulates it neatly at one point: "Follow the rules, you lose; choose violence, you win." What barely saves the movie is that Ender eventually rebels against the attitudes his manipulative education has cultivated.
But here's another problem with Ender's Game. We're told that Ender's about-face is possible because he has a special sort of empathy that helps him understand his enemies and even love them. But we never see how this transpires. And we certainly see nothing that would explain the empathy he comes to have for the Formics.
If you plan to watch Ender's Game with a kid, beware that it endorses something hard to justify: preemptive violence as a way of life.