Battle for Terra is a surprise. You’d expect it to be yet another one of those low-budget, computer animated failures, ready to be lumped in with the likes of Space Chimps and whatever animated movie The Weinstein Company is cursing us all with this year. But it isn’t. In fact Terra narrowly misses out on becoming something of a minor triumph only because it can’t get out of it’s own way. It takes half the film for it to figure out what it should be doing, yet once Terra starts doing it even somewhat dodgy character animation can’t stop it from soaring.
It starts out all wrong, as some sort of preachy, anti-technology screed. The human race has blown up Earth and so what’s left of us is on an aging, crumbling ship looking for a new home. Almost out of fuel and time they discover Terra, a planet which the humans believe they can terraform to support life. One problem: It’s already inhabited by alien creatures, which the film portrays as some sort of environmentalists wet dream. They’re like a bunch of alien, tree-hugging hippies and if you met one, you’d probably punch it in the mouth and go eat a steak just for spite. Actually that’s not far off from humanity’s reaction. Because they’re callous and cold, the humans immediately plan to kill them all and swoop down on the planet to start blasting everything in sight, until one human pilot crashes and befriends an alien.
It’s around then that Battle for Terra gets its head out of its ass, drops the environmentalism bullshit and zeroes in on becoming an actual movie. It flips the script and turns into a character-driven adventure story about two people from completely different worlds becoming friends and then being pitted against one another. Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) is an alien dreamer with a talent for technology. Jim (voiced by Luke Wilson) is a human fighter pilot who’s lived his entire life on a spaceship, watching his friends die. He’s as desperate to find a home as the other Earthling refugees, but Mala saves him and they form a connection which gets in the way of doing what in reality is for the human race to survive, probably the right thing. It’s classic science fiction stuff and though it takes the movie at least a good thirty minutes to finally figure out how to do it, it’s eventually done right.
Once it gets it right, Battle for Terra is a lot of fun. This isn’t a big budget Pixar movie and some of the character animation is definitely a little weak. Humans tend to look like big bags of goo, and the aliens seem to float for no other reason than that they didn’t have enough money to draw legs. Structures and environments fare better, though the alien village looks like it came out of one of those weirdo, CGI infested Coke machines from their commercials. But the spaceships look stunning and the flight sequences are absolutely eye-popping. I saw it in 3D and it’s worth hunting down in those dimensions where it’s entirely free of the standard 3D movie, wave something at the audience gimmicks. Instead the latest polarized 3D tech is used to add depth and scope making the film’s big, epic moments every bit as powerful as they ought to be, even on a budget.
Perhaps most importantly, Battle for Terra is a movie that refuses to pull any punches. This is more than just some throwaway kiddie movie. Things get complicated towards the end and rather than giving us a dancing Ewok happy ending, it’s willing to go to some dark, places. Sure there’s a cute robot buddy but in the end even he refuses to fit into the standard, Disney animation mold. Few other CGI movies would have done the same and it’s hard not to stand up and praise Terra for refusing to flinch when tasked with tackling complex issues which would have backed other less ballsy productions into a corner.
This is an ambitious movie and yes, a flawed one. Battle for Terra doesn’t always get it right and often its reach exceeds its grasp, but dammit it’s trying and for that I think you’ve got to give it a lot of credit. Endure the first half and you’ll be rewarded with a smart, science fiction finale. Battle for Terra is worth the trouble.