Sunday, 11 August 2013

Battle for Terra

At first glance, the story of Aristomenis Tsirbas’s film Battle for Terra sounds like an inspiring one. A young Canadian artist, who majored in film production at Concordia U, creates a modest little seven-minute sci-fi short called Terra (which can be viewed on YouTube here:, shows it around, and is offered the chance by a small studio to expand it into a low-budget feature. Tsirbas uses his precious resources carefully, and ends up with an 85-minute film that looks much more epic and expensive than it really was. It premiers at TIFF in 2007, makes the rounds of the festival circuit throughout 2008 and early 2009 (Tribeca, Seattle, Austin Fantastic Fest, Sci-Fi London, San Francisco), and is finally given a worldwide release in May ’09, at which point Roger Ebert praises it as a “bewitching” effort which creates a “brightly coloured wonderland.” The film ends up grossing some $6.1 million worldwide.

The only drawback to this uplifting-sounding story is that, when you actually sit down and watch it, Battle for Terra is a monumentally disappointing piece of storytelling. You can't for the life of you say that you wish there were more films like this, or that it’s a shame more people didn’t see it, or that it didn’t make more of a market breakthrough. In the last analysis, it’s a mercy that there aren’t more films like this, and there’s damn good reason that it wasn’t more popular and commercially viable than it was. And yet writing this nonetheless leaves me with the sense of having kicked a cute puppy that didn’t deserve it. It all comes down to the fact that Battle for Terra is very good indeed at the things I care most about in films, and horrifically bad at the things that I’m less concerned with, but nonetheless can’t ignore. A look into the actual film will illustrate what I mean...

For the first three minutes or so, we find ourselves moving through the infinite vastness of space – passing nebulae, pulsars, asteroid fields, and vast oceans of luminous gas before finally seeing a solid planet hovering in the distance. As we dramatically approach it, a sun suddenly emerges from behind the curvature of the sphere, blinding us with its sudden intensity – at which point we cut down to the surface of the planet. In this single edit, we go from the cosmically vast to the intimately small, reframing to a close-up of some small alien creatures which look, essentially, like dark green rodents, except that they have wings which are at once silken and bumblebee-like, and give them hummingbird-style powers of hovering in flight. Against the background of a vast open horizon, they’re darting around some green stalks – which we initially take to be some kind of flora, only to see them retract animatedly a moment later. As the camera pulls out, we see that they are in fact a tongue-like proboscis on giant alien creatures which resemble whales, also with the power of flight. Here the camera begins to pan, and reveals that these sky-whales fill the same evolutionary niche as cows, as one of the planet’s sentient inhabitants emerges from under it carrying a pail. The Terrans, by the way, are a fascinating feat of imagination, resembling some kind of fish in their gray pallor, large glassy eyes, and small mouths. They move not through any kind of tactile locomotion involving legs, but by simply undulating through the air like mer-people. The net effect bears no resemblance to cute cartoon aliens who are simply humans with green skin and antennae.

At any rate, the camera pans following the one with the pail, who is revealed to be undulating back towards a Terran city, which is another amazing feat of creativity. It’s made entirely on the principle of organic spires, which resemble either a creeper system with no tree inside, or a cluster of vines which have grown up vertically and solidified. These spire-systems, in turn, are capped with giant mushroom-like domes which will evoke Super Mario 64 for long-time gamers. The Terran’s dwellings, in turn, are chambers hollowed out of the stems of these giant spires, and public places are giant, circular formations extending out of them, creating the visual impression of an open-air Greek theatre. We soon refocus on one of these which evidently functions as a classroom, cut from what we immediately assume to be a teacher taking attendance, to an empty seat... and then another cut takes us into a spectacularly energetic sequence up in the sky, with our young heroine “Mala” (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) racing through the sky on a sort of mechanized sky-glider. 

Mala is an incomparably more energetic and daring flyer than the hapless friend “Sen” (voiced by Justin Long) she’s gotten to join her, at one point terrifying him by diving beneath the ocean-like cloud floor, and then zooming back up right in front of him, with a flock of pterosaur-like manta-ray creatures slipstreaming in her wake. Then a moment later, one of those sky-whale-cows emerges from beneath the clouds, and she pulls level directly above its blow-hole to caress its hide. Soon they arrive at an imposing mountain, at the foot of which there’s a chasm filled with sharp, jagged spikes. This leads to a reverse wind-tunnel, which sucks in any unwary gliders to be slashed apart on the spiky walls of its interior (if nothing else, this image is the most blatant vagina dentate imagery I’ve ever seen in a movie; it makes Alien look positively innocent). Mala is nearly sucked in, but narrowly escapes. Heading home to the spire-city, they fly parallel to a vast border of herma-style pillars jutting above the clouds, topped by sculptures of stern-faced elder Terrans, holding up their hands to warn gliders away.  Just as they’re arriving, however, the human ark pulls into orbit around Terra, causing a total noonday eclipse... 

All of the aforementioned images and plot points will reappear throughout the rest of the film, but the reason this introductory sequence works so brilliantly for me is that everything about it is accomplished without a single line of expository dialogue. We immediately know that Mala is the missing girl from earlier, playing truant in order to have some adrenaline-pumping fun, because of the cut from the empty chair to her. Likewise, we can follow the course of the ensuing glider action simply on the strength of context, and the way all the physics and physiology of Terra seem to be internally coherent. To have paused the action and had Mala “explain” things to Sen that both of them would already know, for the benefit of the most clueless members of the audience, would have been a travesty, and it’s a travesty Tsirbas avoids. 

This speaks to my most deeply-held conviction about cinema: that dialogue is an essentially unnecessary hold-over from the theatre, and that cinematic storytelling is truest to itself when it works by a graphic logic of visual inference, rather than having characters spell things out for us verbally. Also, I love how these opening sequences attempt to convey a totally different world than ours, with its own distinct landscapes, ecosystem, and aesthetics. All too often, when confronted with the total visual and imaginative freedom which animation offers, filmmakers will reveal their own imaginative paucity by offering what essentially amounts to a copy of our planet, with only a few jokey or superficial differences. Another animated film, Planet 51, which deals with similar alien-planet-visited-by-humans subject matter, illustrates the point in fine style. It creates an alien society which is no more than a Pleasantville-style vision of the 1950s suburbia, except that the cars are flying saucers, the dog is patterned after the Alien xenomorphs, and it rains rocks rather than water. Pretty feeble stuff to fill a film with when you could have done absolutely anything.

In light of all this, it’s a nasty shock when, eleven minutes in, we get Battle for Terra’s first scene fully devoted to the exchange of dialogue between characters. It immediately becomes clear that, as great a visual imagination as he has, Tsirbas has no clue whatsoever how to write dialogue. The script for the scene plays out thus:

MALA (tentatively): So... think it’s a god? It could be one of those large rocks, the kind that fall from the sky from time to time?

MALA’S FATHER (uninterestedly): It will be what the elders tell us it is.

MALA (earnestly): I bet I could see what it is. I bet I could make something to help me look closer!

MALA’S FATHER (firmly): Mala, you know that’s forbidden.

MALA (incredulously): But why? It wouldn’t hurt anybody.

MALA’S FATHER (dourly): Inventions that are not approved by the Elders are against our teachings.

MALA (histrionically): Then maybe our teachings are wrong!

MALA’S FATHER (sternly): Mala! Go to your room. Right now.

MALA: sighs exasperatedly and undulates off.

And believe it or not, virtually all of the dialogue in the remainder of the film will also be this bad. The trust Tsirbas shows in his audience to understand the dynamics of the planet Terra, without having them literally spelled out, is the total inverse of how he seems not to trust his audience to grasp a single point of motivation, emotion, or sensibility without having it bashed over their head in the most hysterical degree possible.

In short order, the plot has fighters from the human ark descend upon the Terran city and use a glowing green tractor-beam weapon to abduct a number of people, including Mala’s father. Mala uses her glider to bait one of the fighters toward the spiky wind tunnel from earlier, and successfully causes it to be sucked in and spat out mangled the other side, and crash in the realm cordoned off by the stern herms. The pilot, a “Lt. James Stanton” (voiced by Luke Wilson), having survived, she takes him back home in hopes of finding a way to save her father. The plot has now officially started, and although the film will still contain a number of great sequences after this, it will never recapture the sheer sublimity of its opening sequence. Among the visual treats left to come is a scene where Jim, seeing a squad of fighters cruise past Mala’s window looking for him, bursts out of the oxygen chamber she’s built for him, leans out her door several hundred feet up the spire, and waves to the fighters. In a few seconds he passes out in the Terran atmosphere and falls, causing Mala to have to undulate straight downwards at speed in order to catch him before he’s impaled on one of those spiky protrusions of the Terran surface. The entire descent from the immense height to a bare inch away from doom is covered with a suspenseful editing tempo worthy of a much bigger Hollywood film. But achievements like this are consistently undercut by the film’s screenplay. A nadir is reached when we get back onto the human ark and meet “General Hemmer” (voiced by Brian Cox), a standard issue “warmongering monster” character who is intent on genocidally terraforming Terra to be suitable for human habitation (shades of General Zod in Man of Steel a few years later; their spider-like terraforming modules even look similar). A few token “good council members” on the ark take obvious exception, but are rhetorically cowed by the tyrannical Hemmer. 

And this really gets to the root of my beef with Battle for Terra. I have never been a fan of the tendency, especially in films aimed chiefly at children, to have some kind of authority figure take up the screen for extended periods and hold forth wrongly and unjustly about how things are or what’s going to happen, and the film offer them no contradiction, whether by another character refuting them, or some sort of incident undermining them. It’s the stupidest conceit of old-fashioned melodrama: assuming that the spectator will go into some of exaggerated emotive swoon and think “oh, that’s so wrong!” and thus be proportionally more joyful and gratified when everything is eventually put right at the end. This dynamic has never had this effect on me, however. My feeling is that if someone/thing is hateful to listen to, it’s perverse to grant it every narrative privilege, and include more of it than is absolutely necessary for storytelling purposes. D.W. Griffith’s 1920 film Way Down East is the purest example of this I’ve ever seen – nothing but a solid two hours of Lillian Gish being pilloried, abused, and rejected for a fault (having an illegitimate baby) of which she is really innocent. And of course she’s so doleful and milksop-ish a heroine that she never thinks of speaking up for herself rather than meekly submitting to all this. One of the reasons that I’ve often disliked Michael Haneke’s films is that he uses this sort of thing deliberately, in a dour Protestant attempt to disrupt the pleasurable aspect of movie-watching, and prompt people to reflect on social injustice/the human condition/original sin/whatever. Funny Games, especially, is way down there with Way Down East as one of my most hated and abominated films of all time, for exactly this reason.

Battle for Terra isn’t quite in this league of awfulness in its writing, but it’s pretty damn close. The film’s most unforgivable element is the character of “Stewart Stanton,” Jim’s younger brother, voiced by Chris Evans. He’s one of those aggressively stupid and incurious people who make it almost a badge of honour never to think for themselves, and most of his dialogue to his brother is passive-aggressive stuff like “we need to know we can trust you” and “I’d feel a lot better if I knew you had my back.” And yet the movie still seems to expect us to sympathize with him as the human hero’s kid brother, and treat his words as having some moral weight.

Eventually, the film culminates in a Star Wars-style aerial battle – the Terran Elders having some starfighters mothballed from their civilization’s older, war-like days (that was what was behind the herm-barrier, you see). Again, this sequence is an extremely accomplished work of kinetic spectacle, with Tsirbas showing the same eye for angle and editing as in the introductory sequence. Unlike then, however, the spectacle is now inextricably tied to wrapping up the screenplay, which in this film is bad news... One knows, of course, that the giant spindly atmosphere processor will be destroyed, and Hemmer along with it, and that the Terrans will survive, so one’s chief interest in this sequence is the formal one of how this outcome is to be reached. Tsirbas takes perhaps the most incompetent route getting there humanly possible, having Jim spend endless minutes in a crisis of conscience, with both Mala and Stewart in danger and his loyalties thus “dramatically/tortuously” in conflict, before finally making a kamikaze run against the processor and taking it out along with himself. The contemptible little squit Stewart thus survives to become “enlightened” at last, and Mala has ultimately had nothing to do except be the innocent waif in distress.

For the life of me, I can't remember another film in which I’ve seen more evident creativity be more comprehensively undercut. It’s on the one hand tragic for a film so innovative to be relegated to little-seen obscurity, and on the other hand entirely just, because the script deserves nothing better. Tsirbas certainly isn't a martyr, but one can't help but wonder, after a screening of Battle for Terra, whether one has just seen the rudiments of a masterpiece that just failed to cohere. At the very least, not many films leave you wondering this...

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