Battle for Terra, previewed in 2007 and given a full release in March of 2009, is a relatively short (85 minutes) science-fiction animated film that is absent of attempts at comedy or musical numbers, instead seemingly aiming at the young adult crowd (though it still had a PG rating). I give it credit for not going the easy comedy route established by fellow CG films such as Shrek, Ice Age, Hoodwinked, and so forth. I also give it credit for not aping the art design of any other movie, and for recruiting a surprisingly large number of known actors for the voices. Seriously, the number of minor-to-major roles filled here by actors who are seldom headliners anymore but are solid performers is really surprising.
Sadly, I cannot give it credit for being a great movie. When I saw it was available on Hulu, I was curious as to why I hadn’t heard of it; after watching it, I can see why it didn’t generate much buzz. It’s just not a very good movie, nor a very memorable one.
Beyond lies the Forbidden Zone. ‘Ware, lest ye suffer terminal boredom.
Battle for Terra takes place, as you might reasonably expect, on a planet dubbed Terra, with inhabitants known as… Terrians. Not Terrans, as the demonym would typically be formed and as has been used in countless works of science fiction. I’m not sure why the change, and it’s a minor quibble, but it did take me out of things for a moment. The Terrians are a peaceful, idyllic race, celebrating life and creating art. They lack legs, and float effortlessly above the surface of the world, through means unexplained (and which in at least one sequence fails for equally unexplained reasons.) When designing the Terrians, the art designers succeeded in creating a race that did not resemble any major previous alien race (though there’s a certain similarity to old Sea Monkey advertisements), but they failed at creating a racial design where individual members didn’t look exactly like one another. I seriously had a lot of difficulty knowing who was who in a lot of cases. Three elders were voiced by Mark Hamill, Ron Perlman, and Danny Trejo, and despite their voices not all sounding alike, I’d still have trouble telling you which was which; Perlman voiced the only non-minor role of the three, but that’s really the only reason I can even hazard a guess as to which name went to which.
A face only a mother could identify.
Before any wag points out that I have the character’s name in that image file, it’s only because there were only two Terrians that were hang-gliding, and main character Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) has green jewels on her forehead to mark her as the main character. Ergo, the other one must, by default, be her friend Senn (Justin Long). There are, I will grant, other subtle costuming clues, but the thing is, humans focus on faces first. That’s how must of us recognize other people, and why we don’t confuse our brother for a stranger when he changes clothes. I can’t recognize these characters by their faces, and it greatly hurts the characters.
On to the story. Mala is a young girl (presumably a teenager), fond of ditching class and of building inventions without the approval of the elders. One day something starts to block out the Terrian sun, and it turns out to be a gigantic ship in outer space. Smaller pods come out, and start abducting Terrian citizens — many of whom think they’re being taken up by the gods — including Mala’s father (James Garner). Mala desperately tries to recover him, and succeeds in causing one of the shuttles to crash. Investigating the crash site, she discovers a being of a species new to her, but mostly recognizable to the audience — an Earth man.
Don’t act so surprised. You knew a “Humans are Bastards” plot was coming.
Since Mala is both the protagonist and the designated Aesop-giving race, she rescues the man and restores him to health with the help of his robot, Giddy (David Cross). When he awakes, and Giddy has uploaded English into Mala’s brain, he identifies himself as Lt. Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson). In return for her help in repairing his ship, he agrees to take her to her father. After catching a glimpse of a celebration of life festival (note: not a euphemism for a more upbeat funeral in this case; just an actual celebration of the concept of life), he is instantly converted from thinking of them as monsters barely to be trusted into being awed by a race that seems to know only peace. See, the whole reason the Earthlings are here is that they’ve destroyed their natural resources on Earth. They terraformed Mars and Venus, but when those colonies revolted, a war broke out that ended with all three planets obliterated, because you apparently can’t be too heavy-handed when it comes to morals about environmentalism and pacifism. They came to Terra on a generations-spanning space voyage, on a ship programmed to seek out a life-bearing planet, but apparently not programmed to seek out a planet bearing Earth-compatible life because Terra’s atmosphere is toxic to humans and oxygen is toxic to Terrians. Humans journeying to the surface have to use re-breathers or terrariums to survive more than 30 seconds, all because someone was apparently imprecise when it came to specifying planetary needs.
Humans. Not just bastards. Stupid bastards.
Jim takes Mala to the mother ship to fulfill his promise, and we’re introduced to the central conflict of the movie. The President of humanity (Danny Glover) and his council (the main member of which is voiced by Amanda Peet) want time to find a peaceful solution to humanity’s problems. But the leader of Earthforce, General Hemmer (changing an “a” to an “e” is what passes for subtlety here) wants to drop a giant terraformer onto Terra, converting its atmosphere to oxygen and destroying all current life on the planet. Hemmer (Brian Cox) naturally pulls a coup and initiates his plan, and for a short while we actually have a vaguely interesting action movie. The downside to seeing the people aboard the mother ship, however, is that we discover that the generic faces of the Terrians is not a problem limited solely to alien designs. It is nearly as hard to distinguish the human faces; male faces all have the same structure with a few cosmetic quirks. The easiest way to tell the difference between Jim and his brother Stewart (Chris Evans) is that Jim is missing the middle third of one of his eyebrows.
Scar? Sleep-shaving victim? There’s not enough detail to say.
I actually got confused as to who was shooting what during a later dogfight because of this similarity. The few human female characters also seem to share the same physical template. For that matter, the characters’ personalities all seem to be templates rather than actual characters as well. There’s the wise elder, pacifist but understanding when to use force; the gadgeteer genius kid; the reluctant military hero; the crazed general. The roles have been filled, the personalities have not. Which is a real shame considering the number of name actors involved. Besides all of those I’ve mentioned already, there are small roles given to Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette, Beverly D’Angelo… and all of them, from the smallest to the largest role, is wasted on simplistic dialogue in a cliché-ridden plot, with graphic design that meets only the bare minimum aesthetic requirements.
While Battle for Terra wasn’t painfully bad, it failed to excel or even achieve adequacy in any notable way. It is dull, uninspired, and utterly forgettable. If you really want to watch a film about a man learning the way to peace and environmental enlightenment in an unoriginal plot, watch Avatar; at least Avatar had style.