Wed
Apr 29 2009 10:24am
Harmony with Nature? Hey, Let’s Blow Stuff Up!

That seems to be the basic idea behind Battle For Terra, an animated film opening May 1st, 2009. I guess the filmmakers felt they were on the horns of a dilemma—they want to show that not abusing natural resources is the best way to live, but they needed to add conflict and some sort of excitement that would bring younger children into the theater, as well as justify the RealD 3D version of the picture.

It’s rated PG for “Sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence and Some Thematic Elements” and that last is the part that had me and another mother and my (almost) teenage daughter scratching our heads and saying, “What were they thinking?” as we left the screening. The 8-year-old with us—the only male in the group—was bored by the beginning of the movie but perked right up when the “blowing stuff up” part came along.

So, it seems that some time in our future, but in the past of the film, humanity finally uses up all of Earth’s resources. We terraform Mars and Venus and establish colonies there and use those planets’ resources to sustain Earth. Eventually Mars and Venus demand independence and there’s a three-planet war which ends with the destruction of all three worlds. The survivors head for “the nearest inhabitable world” in a generation-ship (which is actually kind of cool-looking but you can tell from the moment you see it that humans are the bad guys in this movie because the ship just looks mean). Two hundred or so years later, they’ve reached the world they call “Terra.” What the planet’s actual name is, we never learn.

There are some untold number of humans aboard the ship at this point. They come in various shades and have generic US accents. There’s a civilian government and a Space Force into which people are recruited as children (why?). The ship is old and falling apart and other than the council and the military folk we have no idea what anyone else on the ship is doing, if the ship has any plants, seeds, or livestock for humans to use on their new world, or really, anything about these people. They are less well-developed than the Terrians, and that’s saying something.

Meanwhile, down on the (unnamed) planet, an (unnamed) race is living in harmony with the natural world. Everything is organic and curvy and (apparently) agrarian. They have flying machines; it’s unclear whether they have electricity or what powers the flying machines.

Other than the intelligent inhabitants, called “Terrians” by the humans, we see only a few other living things—a small flying thing that seems to be the equivalent of a bird, and a really big flying thing that you just know on sight has to be called a cloud-whale (you also know, the moment you see it, that at least one cloud-whale will die in the course of the movie, because there is no other reason for it to be shown in detail unless it’s going to die a tragic death later). There are plants, but we don’t know if there are crops or farming. It’s unclear what, if anything, the Terrians do other than sing, go to school, and float/fly around. Oh, they don’t have wings, and I’m not sure how they stay up, but they wiggle their flattened lower halves for propulsion (no legs or feet). Their heads look like “greys,” with big eyes, wide mouths, and flat noses.

The human ship reaches Terra and blocks out the sun. Some people think it’s a new god (why? What form of worship do they have? We’ve no idea—these are the only references to a deity in the film; even when they are fighting for their lives no one speaks of any god or gods). When the ship sends out a mess of one-person craft, some people fly out in front of the little ships saying things like “choose me” and get captured. My mind boggled at the idea of offering oneself up like that. Other Terrians panic and flee.

Our heroine, Mala, and her best friend/boyfriend, Senn, begin the film flying around in a pair of one-person craft that look like the offspring of a dragonfly and a helicopter. Through this scene we get to see a dangerous wind tunnel the edge of the “forbidden zone.” Mala and Senn are cutting school, but it’s not clear how old they are—Mala’s pretty short compared to some of the adults but thinking about it later, she has to be in the Terrian equivalent of high school or even college.

Later, Mala sneaks out to look at the human ship through a (forbidden) home-made telescope right before the scoutships start whipping through the village. Her father, the town’s doctor, who uses a float-chair (apparently he can’t fly on his own anymore, possibly due to whatever accident or illness caused the death of Mala’s mother), goes out looking for her and is captured by a scout. In her flying thing, Mala tries to get one of the scouts to catch her. When it won’t, she leads it into the wind tunnel and the ship crashes (pretty shoddy ship). She lands, discovers that there was a strange living being inside the ship, and somehow, though he’s several times her size and weight, gets him home, along with his little robot dog-thing (like R2D2 but with 4 legs and a tail and Wall-E’s eyes).

The robot beams English into her brain and tells her the human can’t breathe Terra’s air. Mala builds an airtight dome inside her living room and pumps it full of oxygen from some oxygen-generating plants the robot identifies. When the human, Lt. James Stanton, revives, he and Mala go through the traditional first-contact dance: but you’re just like Me! Mala, who is an instinctual mechanical genius, will fix Stanton’s ship (a bunch of gears are broken) and he’ll take her up to the big human ship and help her rescue her father.

A week later, when they have built the replacement part and go to install it, Stanton’s ship has disappeared. Giddy, the robot, tracks it to the hidden base of the Terrian ruling council, in the forbidden zone.

The Big Secret is that the Terrians used to be “disconnected from the land” and made war on each other. Ultimately they chose to leave this nasty past behind and reconnected with nature and have been living the peaceful life ever since. Except for the arsenal of flying craft with plenty of weapons, all operational.

Stanton and Mala steal back his ship and zoom up to the big human ship in orbit. Stanton asks Mala to wait in his ship, but after a checkup and the introduction of his younger brother (it’s a good thing Stanton has a divot in one eyebrow because these guys are virtually identical—oh, and their parents are both dead), Stanton is waylaid by General Hemmer who says he’s now a war hero and has to lead the charge on Terra. Stanton protests that there are intelligent beings down there, to which Hemmer’s response is basically, so what? He tells Stanton that they only have 2 months of air left for the spaceship so they must terraform Terra, which will take a week using the giant terraforming machine that also maintains the ship’s atmosphere. It doesn’t matter that all the Terrians will die.

Tired of waiting, Mala sneaks off the ship (using a respirator of her own design) and goes looking for her father. She finds a room full of vivisected Terrians (why? Sampling the atmosphere would have told the humans the air wasn’t breathable) and then finds her father, who is about to expire. She’s spotted by some humans and dad blows a couple of them away (with one of the human’s weapons) and then dies while Mala tries to escape. Footage of this firefight is used by the general to try to convince the wimpy council that the Terrians are their enemies; when the President still refuses to allow Terra to be terraformed, Hemmer stages a military coup.

Hemmer brings Stanton into an observation room where he can see Mala in a pressured room next door. Then Stanton’s brother is tossed into the room and Stanton has to choose who dies. He pushes a button to flood the room with oxygen but, seeing Mala’s respirator hanging on the wall of the observation room, orders Giddy to “protect Mala.” The robot grabs the respirator, breaks the pressurized window (knocking everyone in the observation room ass-over-teakettle) and gets Mala back to Stanton’s ship, which she can now fly, and they zoom down to Terra.

The Terrians try to “torture” or disassemble Giddy, but Mala tricks him using a logic game and he tells the Terrians all about the terraformer. Hemmer launches the thing, which looks like a giant spider, and once it’s on-planet, it starts cranking out oxygen and poisoning everything and everyone. Stanton and the other members of the Space Force are battling Mala, Senn, and other Terrians in their no-longer-hidden armed ships (this is when the cloud-whale dies)—and the peaceful Terrians can fly the ships beautifully and are crack shots! After Senn is shot out of the sky by Stanton, Mala and Giddy go after Stanton’s brother, who calls Stanton for help. Hemmer keeps turning the terraformer higher (to eleven!—no, but that’s what it feels like), so that a process which is originally supposed to take a week is now going to be completed in 20 minutes. Stanton comes to help his brother, sees that the opponent is Mala, and instead deliberately crashes his ship into the terraformer, killing Hemmer and everyone else inside. There’s a giant explosion which takes out some number of human and Terrian ships alike and nearly kills Mala and Stanton’s brother, and Terra is saved.

Cut to: A giant dome rises out of the clouds. Inside are the surviving humans, setting up shop and building a outsize statue of the heroic Stanton. Outside, Mala and Senn (not dead or even wounded) are flying around as before; Stanton’s brother joins them for a while before heading into the dome. Slow pullout implies that all will be well.

Yeah. What happens in a generation or so when the humans have outgrown their dome? And in the meantime, what are they going to eat? What are they going to do?

Nevermind that in this PG movie, the hero martyrs himself! Which may be a noble calling, but is a little hard to swallow by those under the age of 15 or so (my daughter thought it was a very stupid thing to do)—assuming they catch the message in the first place, which the youngest viewer in our group did not. The other mother with me said, “if Mala is a mechanical genius, why couldn’t she figure out how to fix the humans’ ship and save everyone that way?” (Because then there would be no reason to Blow Stuff Up and then the girl would be the hero, ewwww.)

Great googily-moogily, this movie stinks! I’m sorry for the National Wildlife Federation, which is promoting this thing heavily because of its supposed conservation message.

9 comments
Richard Fife
1. R.Fife
That... blew my mind. It seems like there are more and more of these kids movies with mega-hidden-not-really messages. IE, Wall-E. Now, I loved Wall-E, but it is kinda hard to miss the anti-big-box-mart message of the story that is just shy of "liberal propeganda" (never mind I am a liberal myself).

So yeah, can we get back to having good stories being the foremost consideration instead of poorly masked and executed parables? Oi
Jason Ramboz
3. jramboz
This is exactly the kind of thing that, as an SF fan, makes me very, very angry. This is a perfect example of non-genre writers attempting to appropriate genre conventions without any more than a shallow surface understanding of how they work. And the worse thing is, this kind of drivel is what the general public assumes all SF is.

I doubt the writers of this film have ever even heard the term "world-building." If you were to ask them the questions raised above about, say, the religion of the Terrians, I suspect you'd be met with blank stares and a politely phrased version of "Who cares? Why does that matter?" (I do wonder, though, what their reaction would be if it were pointed out to them that the Terrians just assuming that the thing-in-the-sky is a deity because they're "primitive" is an incredibly racist attitude.)

No, it seems that these writers just thought that all SF was good for was giving them a very thin veil to disguise the heavy-handed environmentalist (not to mention anti-military and anti-authoritarian) message with which they, mace-like, wished to club us over the head. Because, really, WALL-E wasn't nearly ham-fisted enough on these points.

If I sound angry, it's because I am. I'm just so sick of seeing mindless feces like this portrayed to the public at large as the essence of one of the most intelligent, thoughtful literary genres yet produced.

Also, in a less eloquent vein, I might add that the whole "ZOMG IT IS WE WHO R TEH ALIUNS!!!1!one" punchline was already overdone by the end of the 1950s.
René Walling
4. cybernetic_nomad
I saw Terra (as it was called then) at the Ottawa International Animation Festival last fall. The fact I never bothered to even mention it to anyone while telling folks all about Waltz With Bashir, Sita Sings the Blues and other films is most telling on how memorable it is.
Melissa Ann Singer
5. masinger
@3: I constantly run into people who tell me I am being "too critical" when I remark on the lack of thought on the part of writers of film--particularly films aimed at children. The implication is that "you can't fit all that stuff into a movie anyway" and that I am somehow spoiling people's fun by poking holes in movies.

And I was relatively gentle in this post; I left out one of the big questions, to wit: if the terraformer could produce enough oxygen in _20 minutes_ to irrevocably alter this planet's atmosphere, then all that nonsense about the human ship only having two months of air is just that, nonsense.

The other side of this implication is that it's okay for movies for children to be _dumb_. Because kids won't notice, I guess? (Not that there aren't plenty of dumb movies for adults--but an adult can generally choose to see or not see such things, whereas kids are dragged to movies by parents, camps, afterschool programs, etc.)

And the idea that these things "won't fit" into a film is also ridiculous. It would have been easy on one of the long pan sequences to show fields/farming, during the panic when the humans arrived, Terrians could have been shown praying, etc. Tiny things, a few seconds long, many of which would have added little or nothing to the overall length of this film because they would simply have substituted for blankness in the current version.

In writing, either don't open these doors at all or deal with the questions that you yourself have raised. DD and I just rewatched Spirited Away and even if you know little to nothing about Japanese myth, the film gives you a huge amount of background so that you are not left scratching your head, wondering how elements relate to one another.
Jason Ramboz
6. jramboz
@5: I'm reminded of an interview I heard once with Neil Gaiman. He said (and I'm paraphrasing from memory here), that writing for children/young adults is actually harder than writing for grown-ups. He said that children tend to be even more attentive to detail, and are more likely to spot problems of that sort.

Also, I tend to be a big proponent of the "quality in, quality out" theory. If you feed kids intelligent entertainment, then by and large you'll get intelligent (or at least thoughtful) adults. Feed kids mindless, pandering entertainment... well, you get the picture.
Melissa Ann Singer
7. masinger
@6: I completely agree with you (and with Neil). I'm also glad that my daughter is already past certain things, like the Hannah Montana movie. OTOH, while we are both fond of romantic comedies, they're hard to watch because many of them suffer from stupid plotting and stereotypical behavior (not to mention the fact that the trailer usually tells you everything you need to know).

(and on the third hand, we're thinking of going to see the new Trek film for Mother's Day, and taking my mom, who is also a Trek fan . . . )
Jason Ramboz
8. jramboz
@7: I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Trek movie! I haven't decided if I'm going to see it yet or not... Well, scratch that, I'm sure I'll see it at some point; the question is whether or not I want to pay $10 for it.

And with romantic comedies, yeah, they're very formulaic. I once worked with a guy who had a master's degree in film writing. He explained the romantic comedy formula to me one day, and since then, I can't watch any of them without instantly seeing it. Still, I guess that sometimes formulas work, and sometimes that's all you're in the mood for.
René Walling
9. cybernetic_nomad
@6 quality in = quality out. Coudn't agree more.

About kids noticing details:

Many years ago (mid-90s), we went to see Disney's Snow White in the theatres. The movie starts with a book being opened and the camera zooming into in and at the end of the film, you see the book being closed. Well the only person to notice that the candle next to the book was shorter at the end of the film than at the beginning was the 6 year old.

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