Science fiction holds limitless possibilities, especially animated science fiction. So why, too often, do science fiction filmmakers simply recycle stuff from older, better movies?
The animated eco-fable Battle for Terra features much that is lovely and thought-provoking, but it also features sleek, battling spaceships flying down a trough, in a sequence that echoes Star Wars. (Also from Star Wars: a lisping robot.) From 2001: A Space Odyssey we get a conspicuously noisy breathing apparatus and a computer that has to parse conflicting instructions. And from Aliens and a whole host of sci-fi actioners we get militaristic goons who blow things up and utter clichés like, "Lock and load, people, it's crunch time!"
Actually, though, the thing about these particular militaristic goons is that they satirize militaristic goons. Also, they're us. In the attractively designed Battle for Terra, the last remnant of humanity has fled Earth in a giant space ark (cf. Wall-E and all the other space ark stories). But the ark is falling apart, so the earthlings need to find a planet they can transform into something Earth-like (cf. Star Trek II and all the other terra-forming stories, and okay, I'll stop).
The planet they choose they call Terra, and it is where the film begins. It is inhabited by floating, benign, insect-like beings who live in symbiosis with nature. Their homes are apartments in what look like giant blades of grass. Their activities include making music and art, and learning. Soon we meet Mala (Evan Rachel Wood), a plucky, technically resourceful girl with heartbreakingly limpid eyes. She likes to ditch class so she can zoom around in a flying machine.
This placid scene is disrupted when, in a frightening sequence, the earthlings arrive. They blot out the sun with their spaceship, and the military leaders among them mean to destroy the Terran civilization and replace it with their own. This story, with its themes of colonialism and casual killing, I take to be a fierce critique of the recent American adventures abroad. (The director and story writer Aristomenis Tsirbas is Canadian.) The Left Coast being what it is, I suspect that critique relates to why a host of prominent Hollywoodians have contributed their vocal talents, including James Garner, Danny Glover and Dennis Quaid.
What also should appeal to progressive types are the film's environmental themes. "We were apart from nature," one of the Terran elders muses in describing what life was like before his people managed to put together a utopia. The Terrans even have a spiritual mascot in graceful flying whales - which, it turns out, must indeed be saved.
Another prominent actor on hand is Luke Wilson, who voices an appealingly butch earthling pilot called Jim Stanton. With his buzz cut and jutting chin, Jim is a caricature of a hulking soldier. But he befriends wispy Mala and her robot (David Cross) after she saves his life with a complicated device she seems to fashion in minutes from bamboo (cf. Gilligan's Island).
Battle for Terra's marauding humans are mostly written to be unlikable, and so they are. But I'm just as uneasy about the soft-spoken leaders of Terra, who keep the peace in part by hiding evidence of their people's violent past. I don't know about you, but I get awfully nervous when politicians strive to keep their brutalities secret, even for allegedly good reasons. What else are they hiding? Let the Terran sun shine in.