Well, I was with two sick boys last week and were quickly sifting through our collection of DVDs and Blu-rays. So we cranked up the ole’ Netflix instant streaming on our Blu-ray player and as we waded through episodes of Dora the Explorer and the Fairly Oddparents, we stumbled across a title that I had actually mentioned back when I reviewed Avatar—The Battle for Terra. I had seen previews for it, and had read the basic plot synopsis to see the similarities between it and James Cameron’s blockbuster, but had never actually sat down and watched the film. Given its similarities to Avatar, Gus was interested enough to give it a try, and Gunnar was game, too, so a couple of clicks later we were on our way.
I went into this film with quite low expectations as the preview made it look like a poorly animated take on a much-used theme, but, like Despicable Me, I was pleasantly surprised. While this is in no way a perfect film, and misses out on a key opportunity to really engage a young audience and make the character motivations more interesting (I’ll get to that in a bit), from a pure story standpoint, this film is in every way superior to Cameron’s blue crew.
Again, it all starts with the villain, unlike Avatar’s vague reference to the desire for this “Unobtanium” mineral, the motivation in this story is clear. Humanity is on the line, as the remnants from Earth are in search for a new home after war tears our solar system apart. When a new planet is found, but would need to be terraformed and its native inhabitants wiped-out to permit human colonization, it sets up a complex and dramatic tension between those who believe they must act swiftly for the preservation of humanity, and those who believe that they must not repeat the sins of their past. This gives our resident warmonger, in this case General Hemmer, a far more compelling and complex motivation than Avatar’s Colonel Quartich.
On the flip side, I think Terra does a great job setting up the situation by giving you a pre-human look at the indigenous life there. Our heroine is Mala, a girl who is something of a scientific genius. Her creations and interests are running against a theocratic orthodoxy that believes peace only comes from nature, and bans any innovation past what they currently have. This is already SO much more three-dimensional than the perfect blue folk that Cameron created, as it sets up a tension independent of the humans, and gives Mala strong rationale for embracing and wanting to learn from the humans when they arrive.
When the humans do arrive, they do so in attack fighters, taking kidnapping scores of the indigenous, including Mala’s father, for what we find out is “study.” It sets up a great scene when many of them offer themselves up to the humans as “gods” showing blind faith. Mala was the only one to have an early look at the newcomers, as she defied the technology ban and builds a telescope. But we quickly find out that the elders who have banned technology already know that these are no gods, and they are under attack.
Mala and her airship are attacked by one of the warships, and she takes advantage of her “home turf” and forces the fighter to crash. The pilot is quickly running out of air, and his trusty robot companion appeals to Mala for help. Together they construct an oxygen tent for the pilot, a Lieutenant Jim Stanton, and save him from asphyxiation.
Mala and Jim then go on a pretty typical path from enemy-to-friend, as Mala’s want to find her father is consistent with Stanton’s want to fix his ship and go back to “The Ark” as they call the mothership. Mala’s relationship is discovered, and she is hunted by the elders for her assistance.
No need to go through the whole thing here, but during Mala and Jim’s escape back to The Ark, we get another layer of complexity Avatar lacks. They find out that the elders have been hiding the fact that the native Terrans did have advanced technology, but that technology was used in an almost genocidal war of their own. Those who survived decided that scientific advancement was too dangerous, and therefore it should be hidden and banned.
To make a long story short, Jim and Mala get back to the Ark to find out that the democratic council ruling the ship had been ousted by General Hemmer, who had become inpatient because the ship was falling apart and humanity was about to become extinct. He paints it, and with some justification, as an “us or them” scenario, immediately making the natives into the enemy. Jim, who was originally the good soldier, slowly but surely sees what Hemmer is doing and doubts this course of action.
It all culminates in a big battle (which, unlike the animation for the Terrans, is actually visually well done) where Hemmer sends the terraformer down to turn Terra’s atmosphere into oxygen and suffocate the native populace. The Terrans have a stash of advanced fighters from the old days that they use to try and stop them. Bang, boom, and it looks like the humans will win until Jim finally decides to take a side—he sacrifices himself and destroys the terraformer.
The saddened Mala, who knows that humanity is now doomed, is comforted by the elders, who tell her that “there are always options” and we close with a city-sized version of the oxygen tent encapsulating a human settlement on Terra.
In all, I think it was a tense, well-voiced, passably-animated tale that told a far more intriguing story than Avatar ever did, and I wish Cameron would have ripped-this off fully as I would love to see this story done with a zillion-dollar budget and live action. It does a nice job speaking to the use of violence, the perception of the “enemy” in a way that uses violence but does not glamorize it.
That said, Terra is a far from perfect movie. Indeed, the film feels like it doesn’t know if it wants to be a film for adults or for kids. It adds complexities like Mala’s love of science and the ban on technology, but then pretty much drops that whole conflict half-way through the movie. The Elders go from reactionaries to wise heroes, and that makes them bland and preachy by the end. More than that, the movie first raises a central question about whether science and technology are something that helps civilization, or imperils it. That’s a great question, especially approaches from the eye of a scientifically-curious heroine. By essentially dropping that whole part of the story, it not only made the story far more two-dimensional, but made the very thing that made our heroine special into something non-essential for the plot.
A few small fixes could have really punched this movie up. When Mala rescues Jim, it’s the robot that shows her how to make the oxygen tent—the same technology that ends up being the savior of humanity. But what if instead it was the young scientific genius Mala who had come up with that? What if it was she and Jim who wanted to bring this solution to the humans, but Hemmer decided all was better than some? What if the Elders refused to listen to Mala because of their pathological fear of science? Mala then becomes the true heroine of the story as she and Jim are beset from both sides. And a message that science neither good nor evil, but it is in the way that we use it would have been a fantastic message that is entirely lost here despite the great setup.
So, in all, I do recommend this film. There is more than a little violence, and a particularly tough scene where Mala’s father sacrifices himself that may not be suitable for the under-8 set (again, an example of this movie not knowing what it really wanted to be). But, if for nothing else than seeing what Avatar could have been with a little more thought, this film is worth the 90-minute ride.