by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 52ND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Produced on a modest budget (reportedly under $20 million), "Battle for Terra," a computer-animated, science fiction film, arrives in movie theaters on the same weekend that the summer blockbuster season officially debuts with the release of 20th-Century Fox’s "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the troubled prequel to the "X-Men" franchise that began nine years ago this summer. With a fraction of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s" marketing budget, "Battle for Terra" will likely slip in and out of movie theaters practically unnoticed, but, despite budget-related flaws, it’s worth seeking out in several months on DVD and Blu-Ray.Sometime in the future, the Earth has become uninhabitable due to war, environmental pollution, and resource depletion. The surviving humans have spent generations looking for a new home. Now, years later, their rusted, rundown spaceship is no longer capable of sustaining them. They think they’ve found their new home, “Terra” but the planet’s toxic atmosphere requires terraforming, terraforming that will effectively destroy almost all life on Terra, including the tadpole-like Terrians (a name Earthers give them). The pacifistic Terrians live close to nature out of choice. They’ve rejected advanced technology for the natural world and organic building materials. Their political structure centers on the authoritarian Elders who decide the limits of scientific research and independent thought.
"A computer-animated eco-fable that's well worth seeing."
A young Terrian, Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood), refuses to follow the Elders’ dictates, skipping school with her best friend, Senn (Justin Long), to explore the land beyond the boundaries of the city in a “cloud flyer.” Her disabled father, Roven (Dennis Quaid), naturally disapproves of Mala’s rebellious attitude. When a massive object appears in the sky, blocking out the sun, some Terrians believe new “gods” have come to visit them. Mala spots the spaceship through a makeshift telescope, but before she can share her newfound discovery, scout ships descend from the sky, kidnapping Terrians, including Roven, and retreating back to their spaceship. Mala succeeds in bringing down a scout ship in her cloud flyer and brings the unconscious pilot, Lt. Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson), back to her home.
With the help of Stanton’s robotic helper, Giddy (David Cross), Mala learns English (via super-fast download), and constructs an oxygenated tent. When Stanton awakens, he naturally responds fearfully, but Mala convinces him to help her rescue her father in exchange for helping Stanton repair his ship. Aboard the spaceship, General Hemmer (Brian Cox), the highest-ranking member of the military, attempts to convince the governing council to attack and destroy the primitive Terrians. With the spaceship’s systems rapidly fading, Hemmer’s “Us” or “Them” argument wins support, but Stanton expresses doubt. Stanton’s younger brother, Stewart (Chris Evans), doesn’t have the same doubt. As Hemmer prepares for invasion, the Terrians prepare to defend themselves, forcing Stanton and Mala to choose sides in a potentially devastating war.
Battle for Terra’s themes (e.g., pro-environmentalism, pro-tolerance, anti-authoritarian, anti-militaristic) are, if anything, obvious, but first-time director Aristomenis Tsirbas, working from Evan Spiliotopoulos’ screenplay, avoids the usual didacticism and sermonizing generally associated with these themes. He lets the themes percolate through conflict between the Earthers and the Terrians, both on a macro level and on micro level (e.g., Mala and Stanton). He also avoids momentum-halting one-sidedness that tends to afflict films with similar themes. Instead, he shows (always better than telling) the results or consequences of various choices (e.g., the Earthers desperate search for a new home, post resource-depletion and post-war, the authoritarian, fundamentalist Elders with a secret of their own) create thought-provoking dilemmas."Battle for Terra’s" modest budget, however, is evident in the minimally detailed character designs (e.g., the Terrians have three fingers and no feet, partly to avoid time-consuming, costly computer rendering, and the humans are barely distinguishable from one another). Tsirbas is far more successful in depicting Terra and its many wonders. The Terrians live in massive trees that reach into the clouds, their ceremonies involve dance-like movement and colorful banners, and whale-like creatures float and fly above the clouds. Tsirbas also handles the set pieces, including the inevitable "Star Wars"-inspired dogfights, surprisingly well, choreographing them with a minimum of clutter or cutting and a clear sense of spatial choreography. It’s easy to imagine what Tsirbas, given a more substantial budget, could do. Hopefully, that’s exactly what Tsirbas will get for his next project.
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originally posted: 05/01/09 21:00:00