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Review: 'Battle for Terrra'

‘Battle for Terra’ is a bewitching sci-fi tale

Posted: April 30, 2009 5:19 p.m.
Updated: May 1, 2009 6:00 a.m.

A scene from "Battle for Terra." Roger Ebert recommends seeing the film in 2-D instead of 3-D to receive the full effect of the nicely stylized animation and well-chosen color palate.

"Battle for Terra" is a bewitchingly animated story about an invasion from outer space by aliens who threaten to destroy all life on the planet so they can claim it as their own. I know what you're thinking. Here's the surprise: The aliens are the human race. The inhabitants of Terra look like cute tadpoles, combined with features of mermaids and seahorses.

The planet Terra (so named by the Terrans) is one of the stars of the film. A world where nearly everything seems to be organic, it has a unique scale. Although a Terran is of considerable size, about as large as a human child of 6 of 7, the vegetation grows on a much larger scale, so that a hollow reed can be used for high-rise living. The civilization includes certain mechanical features (helicopter chairs, ultralight aircraft), but seems very much a part of nature.

The thinking that went into this other world is typical of classic science fiction, both in its physical details and its sociological ones.
The atmosphere is apparently dense enough that the Terrans can hover with a minimal effort by their tadpole tails.

It can also support huge, friendly sky leviathans, who float among the clouds like peaceful whales. The planet is ruled by a well-meaning thought-control autocracy, which enforces strict conformity and discourages independent thought.

When a vast human vessel appears in the sky, the Terrans assume it is God. The bright, rebellious Mala (voice by Evan Rachel Wood) thinks otherwise. When her light aircraft is pursued by a human fighter plane, she lures it into a crash, then rescues its pilot, Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson). Helped by Jim's chirpy robot companion, Giddy (David Cross), she saves his life and builds a dome within which he can breathe oxygen.

Oxygen is the problem. The humans, exhausted after a generations-long voyage through the cosmos, intend to replace Terra's atmosphere with oxygen, thus providing a new Earth for themselves, but alas, killing all life forms on Terra.

This gaiacide is directed by the militarist General Hemmer (Brian Cox), who brushes away Jim's arguments that the two races can peacefully coexist.

All leads to war, which was a disappointment to me, because a film that offers invention and originality reduces itself to essentially just another aerial battle with, however, some nice touches. Are kids thought to require combat at the end? Could they perhaps be trusted to accept a character-based resolution?

The movie contains a subtle level of socio-political commentary, involving the blind faith encouraged by the leaders on both sides, the questioning of orthodoxy by Mala and her friend Senn (Justin Long) and the nuke-the-enemy strategy of General Hemmer. The assumption that the Earthlings are gods shows the pitfalls of imposing a supernatural solution to a natural problem.

The animation is nicely stylized and the color palate well-chosen, although the humans are so square-jawed they make Dick Tracy look like Andy Gump.

The voice performances are persuasive. The obvious drawback is that the film is in 3-D.

If you can find a theater showing it in 2-D, seek out that one. The 3-D adds nothing and diminishes the light intensity, as if imposing a slightly cloudy window between the viewer and a brightly colored wonderland. Take off the glasses to see how much you're losing.

© 2009 THE EBERT CO.


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