Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Battle for Terra

Lost amid the shuffle as people dashed to theaters to find out if "Wolverine" was as bad as it looked or worse was this well-intentioned mid-budget gem, a semi-indie animated space opera retrofitted into a 3D release as counterprogramming. It's an imperfect film that shoots a little too high for it's own good, but fans of solid nuts-and-bolts oldschool science fiction oughtn't miss it consider how poorly this summer is shaping up for genre fans.

When I say oldschool I mean it: Despite the shiny CGI rendering, the story and setting is the exact type of stuff you'd expect to see thumbing through an old Pulp anthology with "Amazing" or "Astonishing" in the title. It's all set in and around Planet Terra, home to a race of tadpole-like floating aliens living a nominally-naturalistic existance under the benevolent rule of Elders who's only big rules seem to be "no unaproved technological advances" and "don't go near the Forbidden Place" (Yeah, that's goin' EXACTLY where you think it is, but try and act surprised anyway) which are enough to mildly-chaffe our principal hero, mechanically-inclined tomboy Mala. In any case, Terra finds itself under invasion - and, subsequently, outright attack - by spacefaring humans. These, we learn, are the last survivors of Earth - wiped out ages ago in an intergalactic Civil War and now roaming space in a deteriorating mega-ship. Deteriorating is the key word, here: They're running out of resources, and the only available planet that can be properly colonized is, well... guess. Problem: Terrans and Humans don't breath the same stuff, so "terraforming" Terra means bye-bye for the natives. This means war, with Mala and a human fighter-pilot she rescues from a crash (shockingly, that DOESN'T go where you think it's going) are caught in the middle of it.

So, the story isn't exactly original, but it plays it's well-worn hand straight and keeps the details fresh enough to mitigate the creakiness. The fact that ALL of the characters are smartly written and well-rounded makes a huge difference: The Terran Elders AREN'T religious-nut jerks... they're good guys who're somber about their decisions and practical in their motivations - when the citizens leap to the conclusion that the humans are "gods," The Elders cooly inform them that, no, they are invaders and we've got a fight to prepare for. Jim Stanton, the main human hero, stays believably conflicted about his place in the unfolding war but also retains a military-man's sense of duty. The principal villian - a human general who'd rather conquer Terra straight-on than try and negotiate a third way - is appropriately rotten but not a one-dimensional monster; there's an element of wounded weariness that suggests he really does believe he's doing the right thing in the long run ("If I sin, future generations will judge me; but without me there won't BE any future generations.") although he does have a SPECTACULAR "oh you bastard!" moment when we come to the expected "who's side are you on?" breakdown. The bulk of the humans AND the Terrans are both played as decent people trying to do the right thing, which puts a darker than usual twist on the big 3rd-act dogfight where, for a change, every death (and there's plenty) seems tragic and futile - there's not a "gotcha, sucka!!!" takedown in sight.

It's even missing the expected preachiness about the futility of war or broad eco-themes: There's no "space-Ghandi" moment of passive-resistance for the Terrans, nor some mystical "fix" for all the killing. When push comes to shove, the Terrans take to warfare and it's attendant technologies with gusto and do a fine job at going all Ewok on Earthforce's ass. "War is not the answer?" Not here, here it does the job just fine... it's just not super-happy about it.

Ultimately, the film falls short of it's own ambitions. It's a little too short to cram in all the big ideas and details it wants to, and while the Terrans are pretty interesting from a design standpoint (rarely has a "good-guy" alien race been so decidedly non-human... they don't even have LEGS!) the humans are a little too animated-looking (think "Team Fortress 2") for their own good. And, of course, being a youth-targeted film it probably wraps up a bit too tidy.

Still, those are minor quibbles. In the places that COUNT this is a fine film and easily one of the best REAL sci-fi stories to hit theatres in a long time. It's a movie that really deserves your attention, much moreso than most others out right now.


Anonymous said...

seems really cool, just hope it hits the theaters in holland, dont think so though.. only big-budget AAA movie seem to make it over the atlantic... But hey! no hope is lost, i can just watch it online for free^^

Kyle said...

In a strange way this reminds me of Superbad.

Stay with me here.

I'm talking about the three-dimensional characters. (see what I did there?) In Superbad, everyone was really fleshed out. The girls were interesting and had their quirks, but also had disticnt personalities. The guys too, no one was a one-note.

So hearing that same sort of treatment is given to the characters in Battle for Terra (that and GOOD WRITING) makes me really want to see this film.