The narrative of “Ender's Game” is thus spare in terms of narrative incident – no attempt is made to hide the fact that this a mere introduction to a more complicated physical and psychological universe – and rich in theoretical detail, as Ender slides through the multiple hoops of his training program while constantly considering just what he's meant to be fighting for. Ideas come before the extravagant set pieces here; the reverse is all too often true of ostensibly similar films.

“Ender's Game” even risks seeming too idea-driven, too preoccupied with hypotheticals. The bulk of the action places Ender and his cohorts in virtual-reality training setups, like a particularly high-tech update of 1990s shopping-mall Laser Quest; it's merely preparation for combat, so where's the peril? The answer, as Card's readers will already know, lies in playing Ender's growing awareness against the private dealings of his adult commanders – with Graff's pragmatism pitted against the more empathetic approach of outnumbered female Major Anderson (Viola Davis, hardly challenged yet, as ever, conjuring nuance from thin air), and the skepticism of Ben Kingsley's Rackham, a Maori-tattooed mentor with an accent pitched unaccountably between Johannesburg and Christchurch. Incrementally, the stakes are raised with each exercise, until an elegantly executed doozy of a final-act twist – one in which all the moral ramifications of video-game violence come home to roost.

For a story fundamentally about Doing The Right Thing – or, at least initially, the quest to find what that thing might be – this is unsentimental, even cruel stuff, lent grace and power by the unmistakable youth of its lead. Not for “Ender's Game” the creepily preternatural young warriors so prevalent in this manner of material: even costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark's uniforms seem designed to emphasize the protagonist's immaturity, the fabric clinging to Butterfield's matchstick limbs, accessorized with safety kneepads in playtime yellow.

Butterfield was a somewhat insipid presence in Martin Scorsese's “Hugo” two years ago, but his calm-eyed, unformed quality is put to far better use here: stern but thoughtful of brow, he's softly sympathetic as a boy required to make major ethical leaps before he's even determined who he is. (The other kids, ranging from Hailee Steinfeld's bland ally to the reliably irritating Moises Arias as a rival leader, seem considerably less special, that's at least partly the point.)

Though its zero-gravity showdowns exude a certain dreamy, balletic wonder, “Ender's Game” is sci-fi that largely evades whizz-bang flash or spectacle – revelling in the pyrotechnics of destruction, after all, would run counter to its very philosophy. Its effects are, well, effective; Sean Haworth and Ben Procter's angular, steel-and-teal production design both sleekly futuristic and starkly utilitarian.

Hood appears to have taken much on board from his botched steering of 2009's grindingly vulgar “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” – he's figured out a way to marry the stoic, even-handed human drama of his earliest South African work (already somewhat compromised in 2005's Oscar-winning “Tsotsi”) to the right-here-right-now demands of contemporary Hollywood genre storytelling, and made by far his best film in the process. In Orson Scott Card's novels, he's happened upon appropriate outsider material: its firm anti-bullying stance and compassionate appreciation of otherness may not square with the author's other beliefs, but it'd be a shame if that external inconsistency discouraged further investment in a franchise with so much on its mind.

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Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.