Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Battle for Terra" (2007)

Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson and Brian Cox
Written by Even Spiliotopoulos and Aristomenis Tsirbas
Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas

Stop me if you've heard this one before: An idyllic alien world, populated by a peace-loving people in tune with nature, is invaded by greedy humans seeking resources.  One amongst the humans spends time with the aliens, learning about their ways and their culture, and realizes that he's on the wrong side.  In 2009, a movie with this exact same story was released and went on to gross more than $2 billion dollars at the box office: "Avatar".

But "Battle for Terra," a low-budget computer-animated film was released in 2007.  I'm not accusing anyone of plagiarism, of course; it's a story that's been told multiple times before.  "Avatar" is little more than "Pocahontas" in space.  Or "Dances with Wolves" if you feel like you're in the mood for Kevin Costner references.

But I like "Avatar" better than I like "Battle for Terra."  This is not to say that "Battle" is bad; in fact it has a couple of interesting ideas and some solid scenes that differentiate it from "Avatar," but overall, "Avatar" was the more enjoyable cinematic experience.

Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) is a rebellious young "terrian," an inventor who thinks outside the box, which sometimes gets her in trouble with the elders of her community.  She spend her time hanging about with her best friend, Senn (Justin Long), flying around in a couple of winged machines she built.  One day, a massive ship appears in the sky over their world.  At first, the people are confused, thinking this is some new god they are meant to worship, and that when smaller ships start flying around taking people against their will, that this is some kind of divine rapture.  Instead, the truth soon becomes clear: the newcomers are invaders, here to take their world from them, by force.

Mala finds a crashed alien ship, flown by a human named Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) and his robot sidekick Giddy (David Cross).  Mala constructs an oxygen tent for Stanton while Giddy nurses him back to health.  Over time, Stanton and Mala become friends and learn about each other, and Mala helps him rebuild his ship so he can return home to his vessel and help her find her father, who was one of the ones taken.  When Stanton returns, he is met by General Hemmer (Brian Cox) who doesn't care about the lives of the natives - he simply wants to conquer their world so that the humans on his ship can have a place to live.  Unable to convince Hemmer that the people below aren't a threat to them, Stanton frees Mala from captivity after she's discovered and she escapes back to the planet where she warns the people of the coming invasion.

Stanton doesn't defy his orders, and leads the charge against the Terrians as Hemmer launches a massive machine that will terraform the planet in a matter of minutes, turning the atmosphere toxic to the natives.  But the natives are not as toothless as believed: they have the capability to fight and defend themselves.  The battle that follows will decide the fate of both races.

"Battle for Terra" feels, every minute of it, like a low-rent version of "Avatar," even though it preceded it by two years.  It might've been able to defeat that comparison if the animation were more impressive.  But the awkwardly designed characters lack detail, their movement are stiff and slow, so even when a finely written scene comes along, the whole thing feels kind of cheap and small.  And there is some good writing here, especially in the latter half of the film when parallels are made between the invading humans and the defending Terrians, and in the final climax which has an interesting little twist to decide the tide of battle.

But the overall feeling of cheapness is hard to ignore.  A few well written scenes can't overcome the fact that the rest of the movie is pretty standard.  Admittedly, that feeling of familiarity is a problem that "Avatar" struggles to overcome, as well, but here the substandard animation isn't enough to distract us.  Like with the script, there are some occasional bright spots in the animation, particularly shots involving things that aren't organic - ships and fighters, particularly.  But even the final battle lacks real punch.

"Battle for Terra" might make an interesting comparison piece to "Avatar" - they're extremely similar.  But if I had to pick one, I'd go with "Avatar," even despite the problems that film has.