I felt guilty chuckling at Battle For Terra. The film, retrofitted from a 2D 2007 Toronto Film Festival entry into a 3D 2009 early summer piece of Wolverine counter-programming, aspires to be more than just another piece of CGI filler. It’s closer to real science fiction than we’re likely to see from other summer films. Behind familiar appropriations from Star Wars and other popular ‘sci-fi’ there are actual ideas at work. Inspiration doesn’t give way to execution, however. Like the airy, grey planet on which it takes place, Battle For Terra is listless and bland.
Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) is the most adventurous member of a minor alien race occupying a misty city of mushroom spires on a sparsely populated planet. Her people look like flatworms merged with the Eraserhead baby; their large eyes are set into flat grey faces, and their bodies terminate in flattened tails on which they hover or fly, or something. (Except when they can’t. The movie is a bit confused on the flying point.)
Curious and inventive, Mala is naturally more forward-thinking than her brethren when an alien ship blocks out the sun. Her people (worms…babies…whatever) are more archaic in their response. Many present themselves as offerings to their ‘new gods’ while city leaders broadcast creepy Orwellian messages. “Everything is fine,” booms a flying loudspeaker. “There is no danger!”
Turns out the invaders are humans, exiles from a destroyed Earth, and they’re on their last legs. Brian Cox, unable to reprise the mutant-hating Colonel Stryker in Wolverine, embodies military evil here as General Hammer. The General views the universe in stark black and white. The few remaining humans must find a home, and dwindling resources mean they’ve got no choice but to settle on the world they’ve dubbed Terra.
As small ships attack her city, Mala manages to destroy one of the invading craft, but rescues the pilot. Through him she hopes to rescue her father, taken by one of the human fighters, and eventually learns of the human plan to replace her planet’s atmosphere with oxygen, which would poison the natural population.
The Orwellian political overtones and role-reversal plot tactics set Terra apart from animation meant just for kids, and certainly elevate it well above trainwrecks like Delgo. Encountering adult topics up-front in non-Pixar animation (even if some are familiar from Battlestar Galactica) is a welcome surprise. While this story takes the easy way out in the end, I have to respect the effort made to ask questions rather than sell merch.
But the stain of Delgo does persist in Terra‘s simplistic designs and sketchy story. Understanding the natives of Terra is difficult as their society is barely drawn in; they’re little more than Generic Peaceful Alien Race #17. Humans don’t get much more story effort. Confident that we’ll recognize and align against the Earthlings’ aggression, director Aristomenis Tsirbas and writer Evan Spiliotopoulos give us a couple good guys and one big bad guy and set the machine in motion. Asking questions is well and good, but a more cohesive story would be better.
You’ll undoubtedly notice a few things in Terra that seem like obvious nods to Wall-E. The lead human character voiced by Owen Wilson is named Stanton, and Giddy, the kooky and helpful robot voiced by David Cross, looks a hell of a lot like Pixar’s little machine. (And not unlike R2D2, as well.) Since this movie was finished only a few months after the first public displays of footage from Wall-E, I’m chalking the robot similarities up to coincidence.
Those connections are unfortunate, but a stronger sense of design and a bulletproof story would deflect quick accusations of theft. Battle For Terra isn’t a movie that deserves to be embraced, but if it’s going to be dismissed outright, the reasoning should be based on the movie’s own flaws rather than superficialities.