The new CGI film, told in luxurious 3-D, feels like a Star Wars spin-off with a hearty helping of pacifistic pieties. But Lucas’s last Star Wars outing, the CGI Clone Wars, can’t compare to the visually arresting Terra.
The new movie’s eclectic casting choices — no Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, or Seth Rogen here — gives Terra an added texture and a sorely needed whiff of originality.
Battle for Terra begins on the peaceful planet of Terra, a land where harmony rules and war is a thing of the past. How did they progress that far? It’s a bit fuzzy, but citizens aren’t allowed to disobey the Elders, and it’s a no-no to create things of which said Elders disapprove.
In other words, the Terrans traded freedom for peace. And that’s a good thing, or so the film implies.
Their idyll is shattered when spaceships start swooping down and collecting Terran citizens. Turns out Earthlings long ago destroyed their planet, plus Mars and Venus, through war and indiscriminate foraging of their natural resources.
War for oil. Got it.
So now the remaining Earthlings live on a crumbling space station orbiting Terra, and the plan is to conquer and colonize Terra for themselves.
At least that’s the vision offered up by Gen. Hemmer (the great Brian Cox proving he’s a natural for animated projects). The general sees no problem obliterating an entire species just to keep his own alive. The Earthling’s president, a black character who in no way resembles our current leader, protests the plan but can’t share an appealing alternative.
In the liberal story world concocted here, just opposing Plan A is enough. No Plan B is required.
Battle for Terra gets personal when Mala, a rebellious Terran teen voiced by Evan Rachel Wood, rescues a fallen Earth soldier named Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson). The two grudgingly work together during the film’s middle sequences, the sharpest of the entire film.
Naturally, Jim is quick to judge and quicker to fight, but Mala teaches him to respect her fellow Terrans. And that doesn’t sit well with Gen. Hemmer, whose evil bona fides are cemented when he makes a passing reference to the Bible.
Comic actor David Cross adds a dollop of humor as Giddy, a mashup of Wall*E and a hermit crab. Giddy exists to lighten the mood and fill in the narrative gaps. He also cheerily reminds us we’re watching ignorant humans — read, Americans.
“Everything different scares them,” Giddy explains when a human freaks out at the sight of a Terran.
Sadly, Lucas’ penchant for ear-clanging dialogue is mimicked here along with a battle sequence too similar to the Death Star finale from the original Star Wars.
But the film does offer some satisfying science fiction elements. The language barrier between Earthlings and Terrans is deftly explained, and the earliest sequences show the Terran lifestyle in brief but illustrative strokes.
The animation is consistently elegant and blends smoothly with the 3-D effects. That pairing often distracts from a story without a real sense of momentum.
The current wave of 3-D films offers a remarkably better picture than in the past, and Terra wisely uses the third dimensional to embellish the presentation. Objects don’t randomly come darting at the audience which only reminds us we’re wearing Buddy Holly-style glasses. The 3-D in Terra enriches without distracting.
The spaceship battles alone, which pop off the screen in a satisfying fashion, prove far more interesting than the dogfights we’ve seen in previous space adventures.
The film’s content — and PG rating — will attract throngs of young, impressionable viewers. But Battle for Terra isn’t catnip for the kiddies. The story moves at a mature pace, and the weighty themes will leave children itching for a laser battle, not philosophical asides.
But time and time again ideology nudges storytelling aside, something adult viewers won’t miss.
Mala cries out at one point, “ask him, don’t torture him,” during an interrogation scene. The implications are more than clear as to what she really means.
Ironically, the film’s finale features the kind of easy compromise that could have been hashed out over a round of stiff drinks.
The Battle for Terra exists between the movie’s ideology and its quest to tell a ripping yarn. For a few fleeting moments, the movie delivers the kind of mind-tickling sci-fi too rarely seen on the big screen.