At the Critics Academy, the fleet commander gave us a warning: Never send a man to do a boy’s job.
I freely admit that I haven’t played a video game since I was a teenager and that the game was “Pong.” In the several decades since then, I’ve been more puzzled than offended by the drift toward violent video games. With so many imaginative worlds to choose from, why do kids keep picking the ones where they obliterate invaders? When the dominant worldview in popular culture is conflictual, the armed forces couldn’t ask for a better breeding ground than a so-called PlayStation.
In the near-future world of “Ender’s Game,” video tablets are a recruiting tool for the army. With the planet under threat from an insectoid race called the Formics, who lost a battle 50 years earlier and are massing for another attack, the leaders of this vaguely imagined Earth turn to teenage gamers for help.
The most skillful combatants are recruited by the gruff Col. Graff (Harrison Ford in monotonous-barking mode). At his side is psychologically attuned Major Anderson (Viola Davis), the compassionate yin to Graff’s vengeful yang.
Graff and Anderson agree that the Chosen One (yawn) could be Ender Wiggin, a bullied boy who is slow to anger but willing to finish a foe when provoked. “Ender’s Game,” based on a book by Orson Scott Card, is full of such middle-ground malarkey.
Ender gets sent into space and trained with a multicultural crew of rookies (including Hailee Steinfeld as a platonic pal) in a zero-gravity laser-tag arena. The presence of Ford and of Ben Kinglsey as a face-tattooed Yoda is supposed to give this boot-camp boilerplate a sci-fi pedigree, but some of the schematic ideas about focusing the Force make “Star Wars” seem as layered as “Ulysses.”
Directed by Gavin Hood, the South African who won a foreign-film Oscar for the tough-minded “Tsotsi” before going Hollywood, “Ender’s Game” is a blandly sanitized spectacle. Ender spends half his time playing tablet-based video games and the other half floating through training exercises that are based on them. While the images are as sharp as your neighbor’s new hi-def TV, the line between real and simulated destruction is as blurry as your nephew’s conscience. So it’s a cheat when Ender decides that the Formics we’ve barely seen are not so different from humans after all.
“Ender’s Game” is part of a book series, so it could take several sequels for the teen hero to unlearn the reflexive violence that the products themselves are promoting. That would be like having your angry birds and eating them too.
What “Ender’s Game” • Two stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:54 • Content Some violence and action