Almost upon its publication in 1985, author Orson Scott Card's militaristic sci-fi novel Ender's Game has been one of the hottest of unproduced properties, a fan favorite seemingly tailor-made for big-screen treatment while also labeled, again and again, unfilmable. Enter our current age of ultrarealistic CGI marvels, and voila! – Card's novel has arrived, with most of its themes but with much of its story missing in action. The good news? It very nearly works.
In the late 21st century, after a catastrophic attack on the planet Earth by insectile aliens called the Formics (nicknamed “Buggers" in the book), the newly allied remnants of humanity have aligned and are preparing for a second and presumably apocalyptic attack by the hive-mind swarmers from beyond the stars. To that end, a massive "battle school" – orbiting the Earth like some high-tech warning to interstellar interlopers – has been built to house and train the next generation of humanity's laser-blasting saviors. The kick? They're just kids. Among them is Andrew "Ender" Wiggins (the reed-thin, earnest, and excellent Butterfield), who, despite being bullied by nearly everyone, is slowly revealed to be the best of the best. Under the tutelage of Colonel Graff (Ford, chewing scenery like it was Bran Flakes), Ender hones his already genius-level tactical skills via a series of increasingly complex war games set in the zero-G battle room. He also wins the respect of his fellow cadets, among them Steinfield's Petra (seemingly a potential romantic interest that fails to jell) and former nemesis Bonzo (Arias). And then comes the final battle, which, unsurprisingly, changes everything and everyone.
I cannot fault Hood's script for jettisoning so much of Card's source material – there's only so much you can cram into a nearly two-hour movie – but Ender's Game really only falls flat during its magnificent, shock-and-awe, final 10 minutes. No spoilers here, but a final, tragic reveal feels rushed, and thus diminishes what should have been a powerful emotional wallop.
That said, Hood's realization of Card's novel is a tightly constructed, thought-provoking meditation on adolescence trapped by permanent war footing, alloyed with some of the best CGI effects work I've seen since, uh, Gravity. It's not Card's Game anymore, but it is about as close as we'll ever get.