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Battle For Terra

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/07/09 14:30:44

"Hail the conquering hero."
5 stars (Awesome)

It was the look of fear that did it.

When the titular war begins in “Battle for Terra,” how easily it could’ve been for the filmmakers to glorify the moment, to turn the whole thing into a rousing adventure. But just as the movie refuses to be naïve about its peaceful natives, realizing that maybe they know more about violence than they initially let on, it also refuses to be naïve about war itself. Our heroine enters the battle, but a look of terror remains on her face, even through all the thrilling moments. It’s terror mixed with some subtle sorrow - sorrow that it had to come to this, just when it looked like fighting could have been avoided. There is no glory here.

“Terra,” a lush, intelligent, wonderful CG animated sci-fi fable, is broad with its themes, never hiding its raw message: humans are a selfish species, quick to conquest. Throughout history, we have thrived on empire and dominance. And we’re likely to thrive as such in the future, as we reach out for the stars. In the grand scheme, we’re the villains.

The movie takes us to Terra, a planet light years from our own, one that just might support human life after we’ve gone and blown up Earth (and Venus, and Mars) in a massive civil war. It’s also inhabited by nature-loving beings who know nothing of murder and deception - and to the vicious General Hemmer (voiced by Brian Cox), that makes them the perfect enemy, easy to wipe out. They’ll not put up much of a fight when it comes time to terraforming the globe, killing off all native life in order to make it inhabitable for the conquerors. Other human leaders object - surely there must be an alternative solution - but Hemmer and his army has the weapons, and they’re tired of waiting for a fight. (Curiously, the natives offer no name for their world or species; it’s the humans who name it “Terra,” renaming rights being a first step toward dominion.)

Yet “Terra” is not told from the human perspective, not entirely. It’s quite some time before we even show up. Instead, we linger on the gorgeous, serene paradise, where Terrians, beautifully foreign creatures who swim through the air for reasons that defy our own physics but celebrate theirs, live in a vast tree-like city in the clouds. Their machines have a sense of the organic. Hang gliders soar through the air alongside sky whales and other wondrous beasts. The animation design is superb, full of great flights of fancy; “Terra” is worth seeing for its lavish imagination alone.

It’s not all idyllic, as the screenplay, by Evan Spiliotopoulos (adapting the 2003 short film by Canadian animation/effects artist Aristomenis Tsirbas, who makes his feature directorial debut here), is sure to include that old genre standby of the quiet village where the elders control a little more than they should, and where religion may blind its followers a little too much. Our heroine is young Mala (Evan Rachel Wood), a plucky inventor who ditches school to race through the clouds with her best friend Senn (Justin Long); her unending curiosity earns frowns from the elders. And when the humans arrive in their mammoth space ark and abduct the locals in their scout ships, they’re seen not as invaders but as gods. They reach out, begging to be accepted into this rapture, unaware of the horrors that await them in the ark above, where they become prisoners.

Cynical religious satire is not something I expected to find in a family-friendly cartoon adventure, yet “Terra” is overflowing with mature - yet not kid-inappropriate - ideas on the very nature of peace, love, and understanding. There’s more complexity to the eventual battle than expected; the humans have their own internal conflict, while the Terrians must accept self-defense, even if means unleashing the violence they’ve worked so hard to avoid all these generations.

The bulk of the story follows Mala as she rescues, then befriends, the human soldier Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson). He was raised from birth to be a fighter; she teaches him acceptance. They return to the humans’ space ark, and will Jim forget what he has learned? Hemmer, anxious for war and adamant about the Terrians’ place as “the enemy,” tempts Jim with them-or-us philosophy. One scene, in which Hemmer forces Jim to save his brother or Mala, but not both, mirrors the general’s strict ideology, while Jim’s realization that there just might be a third option mirrors the film’s hopeful message. Must there be an enemy?

The inevitable war finally breaks out, and, as mentioned, Tsirbas and Spiliotopoulos are reluctant to glorify the moment. Such a battle may be obligatory for this sort of film, but the duo will not let such obligation consume the story. Yet they are also not afraid to make it exciting. “Terra” is full of thrilling adventure, especially in its climax, when a refusal to shy away from the more somber aspects of battle add to the tension. The obvious inspiration here is the dogfights of “Star Wars,” and “Terra” recaptures that sort of energy.

And again, the filmmakers use its lead characters to moralize. Can Jim fight the very natives he knows are friends? Can he fight his own kind? Where is that third option now, in the heat of battle?

These are big questions in a movie that is all the better for them. The film could have easily coasted on fabulous sci-fi designs or straightforward action, but Tsirbas and Spiliotopoulos are interested in telling a deeper, richer, more thoughtful story. Bold and challenging and endlessly exciting, “Battle for Terra” is most certainly a uniquely engaging experience.

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