By Josh Rottenberg
August 09, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

On the surface, Ender’s Game looks like a straightforward sci-fi adventure, a sort of teen Starship Troopers about a wunderkind named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) who’s recruited by the military to lead humankind’s last stand against an insectlike race of aliens. But as fans of author Orson Scott Card’s much-loved 1985 novel know, there’s plenty more to the futuristic tale than that. ”There are a lot of really important themes — leadership, bullying, compassion — and Ender is an intriguing, complex character,” says Butterfield, who had the title role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Pulling off the visual effects in the film — which has been ensnared in controversy over Card’s personal opposition to gay marriage — was anything but straightforward as well. Much of the action takes place in a zero-gravity Battle Room, where young soldiers are trained to fight aliens in intense combat simulations. ”In the book, the Battle Room is a big black box, but I thought it would be more visually exciting to make it a huge glass orb so you could be looking down at Earth and up at the stars,” says director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). ”When I told my visual-effects supervisor what I wanted to do, his eyes nearly popped out of his head.”

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