I'm going to start this with saying something positive. The animation is competently done, and the video has a really cool 3D cover. There. I've said it.
Now, you can't view the trailer without noticing this is a "message movie". There's going to be some kind of heavy-handed "we're ruining our planet and the primitive people are going to show us how to be one with nature" kind of thing. Nothing new there, not since the Powhatan tried that for real. We remember where that got them.
Nevertheless, I was ready to accept this as something clever and innovative, where perhaps the usual roles of invader and "human" are inverted. Perhaps a fanciful re-telling of the colonization of the Americas. Battle for Terra is far too heavy-handed to be clever. So heavy-handed that I'm not giving anything away by including spoilers here. If you haven't guessed practically everything from the trailer, you're probably five years old, and you're not reading this review.
So here's the synopsis, with spoilers. Terra is populated with big, doe-eyed pacifist vegetarian new-agers who float around like Timothy Leary on LSD. They love their glider/autogyro thingies and their aerial whales. Yes: aerial whales. Then the mean old humans show up in their sinister broken-down spaceship with 10 million moving parts, smoking and choking along dropping refuse in their wake. The humans are here because, having polluted the Earth, then terraformed and polluted Mars AND Venus, then destroyed themselves in a massive war, they've got nowhere else to go.
The humans are nominally lead by their president (Danny Glover). Well, not so much lead, really. The first chance he has at making a decision is removed by the evil warmonger, General Hemmer (Brian Cox), who decides to simply (and redundantly) terraform Terra. You see, despite the name and the beautiful blue skies, we learn that Terra doesn't have oxygen; rather, it's got some other unnamed gas, poisonous to humans, just as oxygen is poisonous to the Terrans. We learned that earlier in the movie when a human pilot named Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) crash-landed when a young Terran named Mala pulled a "Will Smith" on his butt as he was attempting to either shoot her down or capture her (hard to say). Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) turns out to be something of a Renaissance whiz-kid, who -- with the help of Stanton's multi-lingual Swiss-army robot -- succeeded on building an oxygen tent powered by a bit of broccoli, thus saving Stanton's life. We know that oxygen is poisonous because it's green and opaque and billowy and noxious.
Still with me? So Stanton is beholden to Mala, and repays her by taking her back to the big evil spacecraft with 10 million moving parts to be re-united with her family just in time to see them die, be captured herself, and be placed in a gas chamber with a human (Stanton's brother). Stanton, whose loyalties are questionable, is given the choice to allow the alien to live or press the red button, saving his brother. Naturally, he presses the red button. Mala escapes anyway, Stanton joins the invasionary force, and General Hemmer deploys the Acme Mega-Terraformer 9000, which can transform the atmosphere of a planet in 12 minutes flat. No typo: 12 minutes FLAT.
Carrying the news of invasion home, Mala finds that her peace-loving, tree-hugging, touchy-feely Elders are actually harboring the secret of their own super-advanced, technologically superior planetary defense force. Although the native pilots have seen nothing in their lives more advanced than a bamboo hang-glider, they hop in and start firin' their lasers without so much as an "oooh" or "aaaahhh". With the help of Stanton-turned-traitor, they demolish the Acme Mega-Terraformer 9000, and just to show there's no hard feelings, they build a comfy cage for the humans to live in.
Normally, if something's animated, I don't think twice about it when somebody pulls a hammer out of thin air or stands on the ceiling; but when they're going for "realistic" 3D rendering, and pretend to be science fiction, I have to reel in some of the slack.
This film is so fanciful that none of it works. But let me start with the very first premise: we've so messed up THREE planets that we've had to go re-shape someone else's. Now, Terra is comfortable, temperature-wise, so we're limited as to the gasses that can be in the atmosphere. And the really obvious question that never gets asked is, if the Acme Mega-Terraformer 9000 is so amazingly good that it can transform an alien world in 12 minutes; including worlds as inhospitable as Venus and Mars, why didn't they use it on the Earth?!?!?! Do you have any idea exactly how bad Earth has to become to make Venus look good? You could strip all the atmosphere from it, fill the ocean basins with Clorox, and it would never be that bad. We would at least be in the planetary "comfort zone", even should global warming steam up the place past Cretaceous levels. You have to remember that the last period of global warming resulted in the carboniferous forests that gave us all the coal we're burning. So they lost me on scientific grounds.
Also, back to that atmosphere thing... when I said the Terrans float around, I meant that literally. They don't have legs. They're also not gas-bags. It's more than a little puzzling what holds them aloft. They're definitely following Cartoon Law, since they apparently can't fly when it's necessary for them to do so. For instance, Mala ejects from a shuttle, and all of us watching thought, "OK, cool, at least she can fly!" Nope. She dropped like AIG's stock price. Just as Roger Rabbit can only escape when it's funny, Mala can only fly when it isn't dramatic.
The human ship of 10 million moving parts... oy VEH! Who designed that thing? I'm sure that it was meant to be visually arresting, and I give them points for using centrifugal force instead of "magic gravity". But somebody should have pointed out that they could have gotten the job done by building a rigid cylinder and simply spinning the whole thing. They really had the whole trip planned, arriving at Terra with a whole 2 weeks of air left (even though they're carrying a mega-whatchit 9000 that can create a whole planetful of oxygen out of dreams and starlight).
Look, there's just so much wrong scientifically with this thing that you shouldn't even let an impressionable youngster near it. The plot, such as it is, is extremely predictable and formulaic, with enough convolutions thrown in to make it really, really, boring. The "we trashed our planet and are coming to trash yours" message goes so far beyond believability as to make you root for the "evil" humans. At least it would if the fact that they haven't a solid plan for disembarking didn't make them stupid enough to have earned their Darwin Award. And the fact that the humans got all the way there without knowing anything about the atmosphere strains belief as well. They should have been able to get a good spectrographic analysis a good generation before arrival.
This movie could have been so good. Change the visuals; give it a bit of science (not magic dressed up for Halloween). Change the nature of the conflict: have both sides be the "good guys", with conflict introduced by cultural and biological misunderstandings. Alien Nation did the "stranded alien" scenario with some intelligence and style. Battle for Terra didn't. Look, I know it's a kids' movie; simplifications are expected. But because it's a kids' movie, and a message movie, there is a basic responsibility to make sure that the message is accurate. Here's what this movie teaches:
- Human are inherently evil. They are deliberately destructive. Particularly people in uniform: the military want nothing so fervently as to use their weapons against anyone, and are willing to manufacture enemies for the chance.
- Technology is inherently bad. Only through ignorance (in this case, ignorance enforced by the elite "elders") can people be happy.
- A primitive society is idyllic, although the entire history of all known civilizations, in every instance ever, has shown that primitive societies suffer from disease, famine, poor sanitation, and short lifespans.
- Hypocrisy is A-OK, so long as you're one of the ruling elite. As a ruling elite, you can lie to your populace and hide things from them "in their best interests"; and conceal the fact that you deliberately exempt yourselves from the laws that you place upon them.