Set in the future, Earth is still recovering from an alien invasion 50 years earlier, when giant, ant-like creatures called Formics attacked. After a daring aerial maneuver by a heroic Maori pilot, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), the Formics retreated to their home colony, but Earthlings still fear their return. To combat that eventuality, the International Fleet has developed Battle School, situated in an orbiting space station. It's a program in which Earth's brightest and most gifted children are trained to fight the Formics. As Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) repeatedly insists to Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), a coldly calculating lad named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) shows the most promise as a future commander -- but first he must prove himself.

Based on Orson Scott Card's 1985 coming-of-age novel, it's dutifully adapted and humorlessly directed by South Africa's Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), who divides Ender's story into two parts: his rigorous training and the climactic battle. The CGI zero-gravity exercises, pitting one student squad against another, demonstrate Ender's strategic cleverness, but he's emotionally torn between ruthlessness and compassion, as he's befriended by fellow Cadet Petra Arakian (Hailee Steinfeld) and brutally bullied by Cadet Officer Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias).

While in the novel, Ender ages from 6 to 12, Hood has compressed the timeline into one year, so teenage Butterfield ("Hugo") can make the transition convincingly, indicating the intelligent adolescent's crucial crisis of conscience. Credit should go to production designers Sean Haworth and Ben Proctor ("Tron: Legacy"), along with cinematographer Don McAlpine, Digital Domain, and composer Steve Jablonsky ("Transformers").

What makes this different from most sci-fi movies is the provocative question of defensive genocide, and Hood offers no easy answers. Hopefully, viewers will debate this relevant geopolitical issue, along with the use of pre-emptive strikes, child soldiers and drone warfare -- long after the screen goes dark.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Ender's Game" is a shallow, simulated 6, demonstrating the importance of tolerance, compassion and empathy, a worthy message despite Card's virulent anti-gay statements.

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