Kicking off with a full-scale alien attack on Earth, the science-fiction boy’s adventure “Ender’s Game” throws everything in the whiz-bang arsenal at us. There’s a satellite martial academy where child warriors train in free-floating combat. There are battles between interstellar fleets that litter the screen. In the end we even get to see an entire planet disintegrate.
And yet all the spectacle never works up your emotions. Many sci-fi fans swear by the greatness of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 bestseller, but this film adaptation, aspiring to high seriousness, is merely glum. The film plays like a dark, solemn junior-high version of “Starship Troopers,” and it leaves you bored senseless.
The film is set 50 years after a catastrophic battle with an insectoid alien race put Earth on permanent (and totalitarian-tinged) military alert. Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) plays gangly, soft-featured Ender, a star student in the military school that prepares kids to lead a counterattack against the ant-like Formics.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was published years after Card’s “Ender” but it came to the screen first, with many similar scenes and parallel situations. There’s a sense of deja vu as we’re marched through the off-Earth boarding school, where the students divide into rival squadrons and compete in Quidditch-like flying shootouts. They play so many rounds of float-and-zap that the first hour of the film feels like a laser tag documentary.
The futuristic visual cues lifted from “Avatar,” “Independence Day” and “Star Wars” are too numerous to mention. There’s even Harrison Ford doing his gruff thing as the battle school’s growly headmaster. Where those earlier films sizzled with invention and gloried in the old tropes they borrowed, “Ender’s Game” drowns in its somber undercurrents.
Writer-director Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) doesn’t condescend to the material in this young-adult space melodrama but he never gets a dramatic grip on it, either.