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Space Inveighers

“Battle for Terra” has small lessons to impart to kids and galactic-sized absurdities for adults.


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For children, at least until they reach a certain age, plausibility might be a secondary concern for a film. But for the rest of us, sitting through a movie like “Battle for Terra” (perhaps for the sake of a son, daughter or weird date) raises a few questions: Why, for example, do the large-eyed creatures in the movie, who live in gourd-shaped condos in the sky, use H.G. Wells-inspired flying contraptions even though they can fly on their own? Do they eat those flying whalelike creatures with which they share the sky? And how did the robot sidekick end up looking almost exactly like Wall-E without anyone getting sued?

While none of these questions is broached, the general plot of “Battle for Terra” is easily understood, and even more quickly dispensed with. The aliens, who look like the offspring of anime characters and tadpoles, are being invaded and must fight back. The rest of the movie can be boiled down to mere organization, the placing of everyone into their respective roles. There are good guys, represented by Mala and Senn (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood and Justin Long) and there are bad guys, who are us, basically — former Earthlings (it's the future, mind) who have boarded a gigantic spacecraft to find another world after ruining theirs (this one), and who now plan to take their new home by force.

So “Battle” turns a time-worn sci-fi scenario to the other point of view, a somewhat novel idea and not the kind of crass commercial vehicle often thrown at kids. (It still has 3-D, though.) A pet project of its director, Aristomenis Tsirbis, for the better part of a decade, the film tries to impart meaningful lessons about tolerance and conflict between more typical action sequences. Though the film gamely tries to give it all equal purpose and weight, the results often feel too breezy and hurried.

When we meet Mala and Senn they're out hot rodding in a couple of flying vehicles before a mysterious eclipse signals the arrival of the invading force, first mistaken for gods. Mala captures one of them, pilot Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson), and (a little too easily) transforms his xenophobia into friendship with the help of his robot assistant, Giddy (David Cross). If “Battle” sometimes feels like a discount version of a Pixar movie — it was released by Lionsgate — Giddy doesn't help. He not only looks like a knockoff of Pixar's Wall-E, but also does far too much double-duty in cheap scenes where he brings in the exposition or saves characters (and the plot) from difficult situations.

Similar simplistic devices and characters abound, such as the main antagonist, General Hemmer (Brian Cox), a single-minded conqueror who thinks finding a new home for the human race means wiping out whoever lives there already. The Terrans on the receiving end of this invasion, as you might guess, are by contrast more peaceful than daisies. The rigid dichotomy between these two factions might not be too generic or facile for little kids, but it gets the filmmakers in a bind when the only resolution they can think of is all-out war.

Taken to its natural outcome, this means a lot of killing and dying and other things that may be too complicated and scary for young children. One character, for example, conducts a fiery kamikaze attack. In another scene, General Hemmer forces Jim Stanton to choose between gassing to death his brother or his new friend Mala, in an effort to demonstrate the tough choices faced in the struggle for survival. Whether kids are ready for such an ethical dilemma ends up being immaterial, however, because Giddy saves the day yet again.

Better, one frequently thinks during the course of “Battle,” would be more attention to the friendship between Mala and Jim, but the film is intent on drawing connections to many of contemporary society's own challenges with right and wrong. What we adults learn most in the ever earnest “Battle for Terra,” however, is that moral lessons make better conclusions than plot points. (PG) 85 min. HHIII S



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