Battle for Terra (review)

Alien Worlds

A beautiful jewel of a planet. Alien invaders swooping down to steal precious resources and wipe out the natives. Oh, but look at that: it’s humans as the bad guys, as the alien invaders, in the CG-animated Battle for Terra, and that makes for a nice switcheroo, if one some human beings will howl at. How dare humans be the villains! After all, it’s not like humanity has a long legacy of genocide and invasion and cultural imperialism toward our own species! Why on Earth — or beyond — would we be so mean to nonhuman creatures?

I’m not at all surprised to discover the Terra director Aristomenis Tsirbas is Canadian, because if there’s one term that best characterizes Canadian science fiction, it’s “humanist.” As in “rational” and “equanimous” and “liberal,” and in this case, we have to extend the definition to “non-specieist”: or, not being bigoted against other species. Shockingly — or, you know, not, if you’re any kind of genuine fan of science fiction, which, at its best, is about seeing the world from a not-typical perspective — we see most of the events of Terra through the eyes of Mala (the voice of Evan Rachel Wood: Running with Scissors, The Upside of Anger), a native of the planet dubbed Terra by the ark-shipload of homo sapiens just arrived in orbit. In a sort of twist on Enemy Mine, Mala — a floaty kind of being who lives in a city in the sky belonging to a culture that worships life and eschews war and appears to love music and art and aesthetics — rescues a human fighter pilot, Jim Stanton (the voice of Luke Wilson: Henry Poole Is Here, 3:10 to Yuma), who crashes during an attack on Mala’s city. An uneasy form of friendship ensues, which can only lead to understanding, and sympathy, and all sorts of further suspicious feeling certain to doom any attempt to dominate by force.

I won’t overplay this: Terra is a tad overearnest and just a wee bit preachy in its insistence on playing up how the humans have destroyed their homeworld by gobbling up its resources, and in how the (to us) alien Terrans are so sweet and kind and nice and lovely in their rejection of violence, and in how they live in harmony with nature. I mean, I’m wholly approving of such sentiments, and still I have to say: Was the sledgehammer necessary?

But the heartfelt authenticity of Tsirbas and his screenwriter, Evan Spiliotopoulos, cannot be denied, and it more than overcomes whatever storytelling faults their approach has. They’ve created an alien race, in the Terrans, that is more alien — both biologically and culturally — than The Movies usually bothers with. (And, again, if you’re any kind of science fiction fan, this should be very important to you indeed, even if the Terrans still aren’t as alien as real aliens out there in the real universe are likely to be. The planet Terra, too, is really alien — it reminds me of the work of SF artist Wayne Barlowe, not in its specifics, but in how it imagines another world and another evolution could be.) And they’ve given us a movie that is gentle in a way that we hardly ever see, a movie that asks us to consider that the world (or, ahem, the universe) and human needs, as imperative as they are, should not be seen in black-and-white, but that there are shades of gray that must be acknowledged and that can be equally as effective as the all-or-nothing approach that is so often the option of first resort.

I’m not gonna lie. The animation — which isn’t by Disney or Pixar — is lovely, but it’s not groundbreaking. I first saw the film last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, when it was not in 3D, and while the 3D-ization of the film does not at all detract from the experience, I’m not entirely sure it was necessary either. Because Battle for Terra is not, primarily, an experience about spectacle but one about emotion and morals and ethics. If you don’t want to have to think about a movie, this is not the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you love, that, you’ll love this, too.

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