[23 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The most important battle in any science fiction effort rarely takes place between two feuding lifeforms, on the surface of a hostile extraterrestrial planet or in the dark vacuum of space. Instead, creators routinely wage war with producers and studios over tone, direction, ambitions, and audience demographics. Naturally, they fear such specialized material won’t result in a mainstream moneymaker. In most cases, the situation is resolved through a kind of cinematic diplomacy, a backwards variation of the classic “too many cooks” conceit. Yet there are times when you can almost see said conflict bleeding through the chosen media.
A clear example of this aesthetic clash and compromise comes with the speculative CGI epic Battle for Terra. On the inside, there is an inspired story about friendship, courage, and the age old maxim about putting the needs of many before the needs of self. On the outside, however, is a hodgepodge of ideas - some successful, some specious - that sacrifice seriousness and invention for the same old George Lucas-lite look at man vs. alien interaction. It’s a dichotomy that even director Aristomenis Tsirbas acknowledges in the new Blu-ray release of the film.
In his story, Mala and Senn are two best friends living on a remote planet where aggression doesn’t exist and life is a celebration of tranquility and symbiosis with nature. While primitive in its religious and civic make-up, the land is serene and at peace - that is, until a wayward starship enters its atmosphere and dispatches several survey vessels. When Mala’s father is captured by one of these fast-flying craft, our intelligent young heroine gives chase, forcing one of them to crash.
She soon finds herself befriending a belligerent space pilot named Jim Stanton. He is one of several hundred remaining humans, the last vestiges of life on Earth. A massive war destroyed the planet, and the survivors have been traveling in an ‘ark’ ever since. Mala’s homeland seems like the perfect place for resettlement. Now, with the despotic Gen. Hemmer defying orders, an army of invaders is preparing to take over the newly named Terra, and turn it into a place fit for mankind - and unfit for any other ‘inhabitants’.
Based on Tsirbas’ celebrated short film and in development for over six years, Battle for Terra does have its high points. It looks gorgeous - especially when given the high tech polish of a complete HD makeover. It offers some impressive voice acting and musical accompaniment (the score is by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski). The character design, while rather basic and blocky, puts us in the necessary otherworldly mood, and Tsirbas keeps things moving both sentiment and storywise. But overall, the film suffers from a struggling schizophrenia, unsure of whether to tie its filmmaking fortunes to old fashioned sci-fi like Fantastic Planet and Silent Running or the suped up space operatics of Star Wars and most kid-friendly animated attempts.
To hear Tsirbas tell it (on the accompanying commentary track), Terra was supposed to be a much darker and far more serious film. It was definitely designed around the current political clime, providing an allegorical insight into the sordid situation we find ourselves in. We are supposed to see the ark as America, brazenly confronting other countries with a ‘like it or lump it’ sort of attitude. It’s the War on Terror taken extraterrestrial. There was also to be insinuations of genocide and unsettling experimentation. Sacrifice and death were big items on his agenda and in the end, he hoped to show that via conciliation and mutual understanding (not threats of war and destruction) there is hope for something resembling harmony.
Desperate for a PG-13 rating and a shot at an underage fanbase, the studio said no. Thus began a back and forth that found many scenes toned down, original concepts (live action with computer generated inserts) scrapped, and some of the meatier material deemphasized for more cute robots, space stunts and explosions. Battle for Terra really suffers when we enter these long, drawn out dogfights, Tsirbas and his screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos unable to bring anything new or different to such standard action elements. It also distracts from the far more interesting ideas here - the Terrin society, their ocean-like existence high in the clouds, their own internal intolerances, Mala’s coming of age, etc. Thankfully, the voice talent (including a wonderful Evan Rachel Wood and a heroic Luke Wilson) helps overcome such struggles.
Thanks to the Blu-ray as well, we get some of this missing material back. The deleted scenes, while clearly unnecessary in this version of the film, hint at the bigger picture Tsirbas was pitching, and the intriguing Making-of featurettes show that, even in a less than Pixar capacity, it takes an awful lot to realize (and render) one of these titles. It’s also fun to hear the director dish on his favorite genre efforts, to highlight the homages and differentiate between his concepts and similar sounding stories that came before. Indeed, what we learn about Battle for Terra is that it doesn’t mind looking back. It wears its influences patiently and proudly. Without the direct interference from those convinced they know better, this might have been a work of unqualified wonder.
As it stands, Battle for Terra is a cinematic seesaw - up one moment, dragged down by derivative facets the next. There are parts here that will leave you gobsmacked. There are other sequences that never really gel. Since there are more winners than losers the overall movie really does work. You become invested in these characters and are eager to see the bad guys - on all sides - get their necessary comeuppance. It’s just a shame that Aristomenis Tsirbas and Evan Spiliotopoulos didn’t get to make the movie they really wanted to. They should be happy with the results here, but on some level, Battle for Terra does feel like a watered down version of something far more substantial and original. Even in this less than perfect form, however, their imagination and ambition shine through.