MOVIE REVIEW: “The Battle For Terra.”

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One of the nice things about being a basically hypercritical and negative individual like myself is that when your opinions turn out to be wrong, you’re almost invariably pleasantly surprised. “Well, that’s it: we’re all gonna’ die,” I say, and it’s kind of hard not to be happy when you’re proved to be wrong. I feel sad for all the stupid hippies of the world, who constantly aspire to great and glorious things, only to have ugly stupid reality and traffic jams and famines and coffee stains bring them down. On the other hand, if you’ve resigned yourself to an imminent economic and environmental collapse, and it *doesn’t* happen, then every day seems like a gift from God. It’s a “The glass is half empty/The glass is broken and empty and men are coming to kill you” kind of thing. I’m not saying it’s the best of all possible ways to live, I’m just saying that it works for me.

I had one of these experiences today when I went (Grudgingly) to see “The Battle For Terra.” Frequent visitors to our happy little blog may recall my very low expectations and condescending predictions for the film from a few weeks ago, and if you don’t you can read ‘em here:
http://www.republibot.com/content/things-almost-interest-us-battle-terra Seriously, go read ’em now and come back, I’ll wait for you.

Done? Thanks. The reason I wanted you to read my half-assed predictions is so I can whole-assedly own up to my wrongness. To wit:

1) This is *not* an ecological fable.
2) The aliens are *not* a politically correct hybridization of American Indians and Hippies.
3) Earth was *not* destroyed because bad people refused to "Go Green"
4) The aliens *do* live "In tune with nature" but only because they’re technologically primitive and have no choice. They don’t recycle.
5) This much I did get pretty much spot-on: The bad humans in this movie are essentially analogues for the European powers who invaded and enslaved the New World, and all-but-destroyed all the native cultures and civilizations and religions and suchlike.
6) This one I got sort of semi-right: Eventually, however, one of the bad humans will go native, realize he has to "Do the Right Thing" and will stop the invasion, convincing humans and aliens to live together in peace and prosperity.
7) I’m 100% convinced that this prediction was true: Whoever wrote this movie has never seen "Babylon 5" and doesn't realize "Earthforce" is the name of the military in that show.

But the big shocker, the one I totally couldn’t have predicted was this: “Battle for Terra” is a good movie. Damn good in places, but solidly above the bar through much of it’s running time. In fact, if you’re the kind of guy who likes a little ‘science’ in your Science Fiction, and not just Transformers and Star Trek doubletalk, this is actually a really internally consistent, well-thought-out SF film. In fact, I’m going to go a little bit further and say that this is exactly the kind of genre film that pretentious fans (like myself) claim to want. Of course it'll bomb - most fans (unlike myself) *are* just being pretetious when they say they want something new and exciting, when in fact they just want cool space battles and pretty-pretty explosions. That's a horrible shame since this is 9/10ths of a really good movie.

Seriously!

We’ve got an intriguing alien culture that is far more detailed than they first appear, and not nearly so new-agey as the commercials would have them appear. We’ve got a ‘first contact’ story told primarily from the Alien’s point of view - we’re fifteen minutes in to the film, or more, before we even see a human. We’ve got an intriguing backstory on both sides driving the plot, and a seemingly irresolvable quandary that makes the bad guys sympathetic, even though they’re basically evil, and which makes the good guys understandably a bit intractable even if they’re basically good. We’ve got (mostly) believable technology that recognizably follows the laws of physics, we’ve got a pretty well-thought-out alien ecosystem. Hell, we’ve even got an interesting planet, and a plot driven by neato-keano bluesky technology like Terraforming.

The Interesting Planet is, well, interesting. If you’ve read my screeds here http://www.republibot.com/content/why-aren%E2%80%99t-there-more-interest... and here http://www.larryniven.org/knownspace-1.shtml you’ll have figured that this is one of my major quibbles with speculative fiction: the fact that planets are invariably “Just like earth” and are horribly unimaginative, excepting having an extra moon or two thrown in. In that regard, this movie was an answer to my prayers. At first it appears to be basically Jovian, but on closer inspection it’s more like Venus if that planet were further from the sun - its atmosphere is very very dense, and as such there’s only a relatively narrow strata in which the locals can comfortably live. We don’t get any specific exposition to this effect, but it’s consistent with what we see. The aliens - called “Floaters” by the humans - essentially swim through their atmosphere. They have a slight negative buoyancy so they’ll settle to the ground if they stop moving for too long. They build their civilization around widely-removed groves of massive trees that grow through the livable strata. These are like some crazy gene-spliced combinations of giant Sequoyah, banyans, and mushrooms. The ground is never seen, lost in clouds, unless you venture out of the comfortable zone. Oh, and did I mention they don’t breathe oxygen? That’s right, the atmosphere will choke humans. Likewise, our air will kill them.

The Floaters themselves live in a very low-tech society. They don’t appear to have electronics, their machines appear to all be clockwork, and the priestly elders carefully regulate which technology is lawful and which isn’t. They’re peaceful, though some of them feel a bit chafed by the priests’ rules on this subject.

The “Ark” from Earth is, itself, very impressive and basically sensible. It’s egg-shaped in profile, made up of countless counter-rotating rings which produce centripetal force for gravity. Nobody’s got Artificial Gravity in this film, nobody’s got Faster-Than-Light drive. We’re told the Ark took “Many generations” to get from earth to “The nearest solar system that could support human life.” The two prominent humans both mention that they’ve never been on a planet before, never seen grass or heard birds chirp, and one of them is at least twice the age of the other. It’s been a long haul, and the Ark is much the worse for wear. She’s falling apart, frankly, and this deterioration of their technology drives a good deal of the plot.

We’re told - and it’s not too much of a spoiler, since they blow this in the trailers - that Earth is gone. I’d mistaken that for an ecological thing, but no, no, no, the truth is much more interesting than that: Earth ran out of resources and terraformed both Venus and Mars, then sucked ‘em dry of both taxes and raw materials. The colony worlds revolted a few centuries later, resulting in a war that wiped out all three planets. There’s a few inferences as to how this went down more specifically, but it’s not openly expressed and so I’ll leave you to discover that on your own. The survivors of mankind head out on the ultimate hail mary pass, trying to find a new planet. In a flashback we see a whole fleet of ships leaving Earth, but only The Ark survived.

What happened to ‘em? Did they just break down on the way? Did they start fighting each other and cannibalize the other ships for supplies? It’s impossible to say, but General Hemmar does have a lot of campaign ribbons on his chest. It’s hard to believe that all of those are for good conduct and exhibition drill team. In any event, it seems fairly clear that the bad guys won the interplanetary war that wiped out our solar system. During the long passage, humanity’s remnant has become an armed camp. The society depicted is entirely military, led by a tiny civilian government headed by a president (And the film’s only black human character.) which appears to have become largely vestigial. Indeed, the removal of this appendix is a fairly inessential plot point, and it’s treated with only minor annoyance, even by the ‘good’ characters.

The main antagonist appears to have slight delusions of Godhood - my favorite line from the movie actually has him making an offhand biblical allusion that reveals much about his character - but despite his monomania and aggressive xenophobia, he’s not an entirely unsympathetic character. He’s been cooped up on a ship his entire life daydreaming about a kind of apotheosis that would bring salvation for his people, and he really does want what’s best for his people even if he’s sort of a wad about it. He himself nails it when he says “If I’ve sinned, that’s for future generations to decide. But know this: there won’t be any future generations without me.” His big flaw, really, is inflexible thinking.

The human protagonist - Stanton - is a fighter pilot. He’s voiced by Luke Wilson in a way that’s oddly reminiscent of Kurt Russell for some reason. He’s not heroic, but he is basically a moral guy, if, likewise, a bit inflexible in his thinking. He becomes the first human to come in to contact with the Floaters, and inadvertently then becomes the first ‘war hero’ of the war to take the planet, which he’s very uncomfortable with because it forces him to make all kinds of very hard choices: My brother or my alien friend? My people or theirs? Genocide or extinction? Right or wrong? It’s good stuff. Basted on Stanton’s first-hand intel, the people of the Ark believe they can trounce all over the primitive floaters and easily take the planet and re-shape it to their needs.

But of course the alien Priests have a few secrets. Priests always do….

That’s all I’ll tell you about the actual story, because it’s just fun and I don’t want to blow all the surprises for you. I will say, however, that as of right now it’s my favorite science fiction film of 2009. (Not that there’s much competition thus far). I like that it takes its science fiction seriously, and presents us with a solid dilemma that can’t be easily resolved. I like that the aliens are actually fairly alien, and their world is actually pretty exotic, and not just a backlot in LA. It’s impossible for me not to like a movie that effectively reverses the basic “Alien invasion” plot. I liked just about everything about it, excepting the stuff I didn’t like.

Caveats:

Despite my glowing review, I have quite a few things that annoyed me about the film: The direction is flat and unaffecting. The character design for the humans is very bland and simplistic. This is probably intentional - we’re supposed to identify more with the aliens than the humans, and the humans are almost exclusively military and hence interchangeable - but it’s distracting and distances us from those parts of the story. The movie is in 3D, but it clearly wasn’t conceived of that way. It was obviously intended as a ‘flat’ film bumped up to the 3D format in post production, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the bright side, we’re spared any annoying “paddle-ball in the face” gags, but on the down side it’s lacking the extreme (And awesome) depth of field that we got in Monsters vs. Aliens. The visuals are interesting, and well-thought-out, but they don’t really pop through most of the film. The humans are kind of bland through the whole thing, and don’t quite convey the level of desperation that I think they’d probably really have in this situation. The voice acting ranges from tolerable to sub-par, and they basically waste James Garner, though he’s good in the little bit he’s given to do. (And again, it’s hard not to like an alien with a very slight Southern accent). The music is generic and uninspired. Despite much of the undeniably subtle nuance in the movie, the actions of most of the humans seem rather clichéd and trite.

But you know what? None of that really matters. I’m not saying this is the best movie of all time, but what I am saying is this is a surprisingly complex, well-told, thought-provoking B movie that does exactly what it’s supposed to without venturing in to the “Been there, done that” trap that most genre flicks seem to not only fall in to, but aspire to.

If SF on the big screen is all about suspension of disbelief, then suspend your disbelief a little harder - squint one eye if you need to - and force yourself not to notice the sub-par elements. Don’t let them distract you, because the good aspects of the film are charmingly unexpectedly good and well worth the effort.

Be pleasantly surprised like me: go see it!

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