Battle for Terra
The animated intergalactic actioner Battle for Terra is built upon a time-honored sci-fi premise: The inhabitants of a resource-rich planet go about their quiet, mundane lives, blissfully unaware of aliens lurking above who are finalizing a nefarious plot to invade and plunder.
But there's a twist: This time around, the aliens are us, the last survivors of humanity limping through space on a decrepit, deteriorating vessel dubbed the Ark. It turns out that after environmentally decimating Earth, we humans colonized Venus and Mars ... then sank into a bitter civil war over ever-diminishing natural resources. The ensuing cataclysm destroyed all three planets, propelling a handful of survivors into a cosmic quest for a new home.
What we find is Terra.
There are two problems. 1) Terra's atmosphere doesn't hold much oxygen. 2) It's populated by a peace-loving race of floating, tadpole-like creatures who live in harmony with their world and with one another. Neither war nor environmentally destructive technology mar this Edenic world. And everyone in this agriculturally situated civilization happily submits to a small group of ruling elders.
Everyone, that is, except an inventive teenager named Mala. She doesn't understand the Terran elders' prohibitions against creating new technology, and so she builds a telescope to see what's really happening in the heavens ... just about the time the humans' Ark enters orbit.
War ensues. And the extermination of one race or the other seems inevitable.
Within the context of war, Mala's inquisitive nature serves her well. After her father is taken captive, Mala downs one of the intruder's space fighters and takes its pilot, Jim Stanton, captive. Working with Stanton's friendly, droid-like robot Giddy, Mala learns English and constructs an oxygen tent to keep Jim alive. He eventually promises to retrieve her father from captivity in exchange for returning him to the Ark—a prisoner exchange of sorts.
It is while they're working together toward those agreed-upon ends that an unlikely friendship is forged between Mala and Jim.
Friendship, bravery, sacrifice and a willingness to look past external differences are among Battle for Terra's positive themes. Though they start out as enemies, Mala and Jim realize that they are not so different, and they choose to help each other, even rescuing each other from peril. Each learns to exhibit empathy for the plight faced by the other race. Elsewhere, Mala and her best friend, Senn, also risk their lives for each another.
Commanded to go into battle against the Terrans, Jim remains deeply conflicted about a general named Hemmer's misguided conviction that only one race can survive. Jim challenges his younger brother, Stewart, not to submit mindlessly to Hemmer's violent, one-dimensional perspective.
And Jim isn't the only human convinced that a violent invasion of Terra is the wrong solution for survival. The civilian leader of the humans, President Chen, counsels waiting and looking for a cooperative solution instead of simply committing genocide.
[Spoiler Warning] In keeping with Chen and Jim's mindset, the film's ultimately positive ending strongly challenges us-or-them thinking, the belief that the only way one group can survive is to annihilate the other. And Jim doesn't stop with just thinking. He destroys the humans' terraforming machine, sacrificing his own life in the process. He's rewarded by his race and the Terrans working together to construct a dome where the surviving earthlings can begin a new life.
Naming the humans' ship the Ark seems to be a deliberate allusion to Genesis. After telling subordinates that the terraforming machine will infuse Terra with oxygen in just seven days, Gen. Hemmer says sarcastically, "Very biblical, don't you think?" He also says of his intent to transform Terra (thus killing all life on it), "If I sin, let future generations judge me."
The Terran elders seem to be equal parts priests and politicians as they preside over a theocracy of sorts. What kind of theocracy? The alien race's religion is ecological: Each year, the Terrans celebrate the "ceremony of life" in which they collectively express thanks to nature for providing what they need to live. "We thank life for what it brings," Mala tells Jim. The Terrans' religious creed says that they are "together ... forever ... in life."
When the humans arrive, some Terrans mistakenly think the Ark is a "new god." Likewise, when the humans forcibly collect several Terrans with tractor beams, the Terrans describe the process as being taken by the gods.
I inferred that the elders constructed their religious system in an attempt to keep the Terrans from creating technology that's believed to inevitably lead to war.
Once the invasion begins, Terran airships and human spacecraft are destroyed in explosions during intense battle sequences. We don't directly witness the death of anyone onboard these craft, but it's implied that there are many casualties on both sides of the conflict.
More suggestively disturbing is the specter of genocide at the film's core. After the humans turn on the terraforming machine (an enormous, spider-like contraption that practically oozes malevolence), the oxygen it spews begins to suffocate the Terrans. We hear weeping and mourning as mothers holding their children frantically try to flee. In the same vein, we see a room on the Ark full of restrained Terrans whom the humans have captured. It's implied that most are in bad shape physically, and that they're perhaps being used as slave laborers in dangerous jobs.
In order to escape from Terra, Jim pretends to take Mala hostage and threatens to kill her. (He doesn't mean it, but she doesn't know that.) Later, Mala is captured on the Ark, and Gen. Hemmer forces Jim to choose between saving her life and saving his brother's. (He manages to dodge the difficult choice by commanding Giddy to save her.) A firefight between Mala and human forces claims two human lives and one Terran—who's sucked through a breach in the ship's hull. Another laser-filled gun battle ends when Mala steals a ship that subsequently gets shot down. (She survives the crash.)
Jim's ship gets sucked into a wind cave. He loses control and rolls down a snowy hill. Elsewhere, he falls from a window high in Mala's home; Mala and Giddy race to catch him, stopping his descent just in time to prevent him from landing on several huge thorns.
Crude or Profane Language
One misuse of God's name and one exclamation of "d--mit."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Jim is shown from the side naked on an operating table as robots perform surgery on his wounds. (We glimpse his bare outer thigh and torso.) Mala has no love for school, and she entices Senn to skip class with her. Mala also loves to test limits imposed by the elders, which she does by flying a bicycle-like glider-plane into a forbidden area and goading Senn to follow her. It's implied that the Terran elders have repeatedly deceived their people in an attempt to keep them in the dark on a variety of subjects.
When Jim raves to Hemmer about the Terrans' culture, including its art and music, the general scoffs and asks coldly, "Can they fight?" When Jim replies affirmatively, the general quips, "Then they will die with honor."
It's not often that a sci-fi flick encourages us to root for the aliens instead of the humans. But that's exactly what happens here. And in doing so, it serves up several key messages that are impossible to miss: War, greed and over-consumption are bad. Living harmoniously with each other and with nature is good. For the most part, these are positive messages. But the Terrans have turned respecting nature into an act of worship. And, beyond that, these ideas are delivered onscreen with such a heavy hand that Battle for Terra at times feels like an enviro-pacificist parable.
The Terrans' love for all living creatures, for example, is illustrated by Mala's encounter with a huge whale-like creature. She flies over it and touches it, and a smile of wonder fills her face as she does so. It's a tender moment that brought a smile to my face, too. Later, the creature is badly wounded in conflict. At that point, the purpose of Mala's previous encounter becomes clear: It was an emotional setup intentionally designed to encapsulate the intertwined antiwar/environmental doctrine. At that point, I thought, OK. Save the space whales. Gotcha.
Thankfully, not all of the movie's positive messages feel quite so manipulative. Battle for Terra also challenges us to stop seeing humanity's problems as a zero-sum game in which some people must win while others necessarily lose. Instead, we're encouraged to look for solutions in which everyone can prosper, to imagine a world in which we set our differences aside as we work together for the common good. Mala's friendship with Jim sharply illuminates these virtues, while showcasing bravery, loyalty and self-sacrifice as well.
Terra also hints at the horrific atrocities humankind is capable of perpetrating. As terrified Terran mothers clutch their babies and begin to suffocate, it's impossible not to think of the innocent victims of the World War II Holocaust. These scenes are more intense than your average animated alien-invasion fare, and they'll likely make some parents think twice about taking the whole family for popcorn and a tale about genocide. But they also lend a depth of emotional resonance to what appears on the surface to be just another weak, Titan A.E.-style tribute to Star Wars and Star Trek.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Voices of Evan Rachel Wood as Mala; Luke Wilson as Jim Stanton; Justin Long as Senn; James Garner as Doron; Brian Cox as General Hemmer; David Cross as Giddy; Chris Evans as Stewart Stanton; Danny Glover as President Chen
Aristomenis Tsirbas ( )