Aristomenis Tsirbas
Aristomenis Tsirbas/United States 2007

The bar for animated films has been set high – really high. Pixar occupies the top spot exceeding expectations with both narrative and technical competence. On the strength of the Shrek franchise, the DreamWorks outfit is not far behind. However, the reason for these films’ box office and critical success is in narrative and character development. Don’t try to compare Terra in terms of its animation because such a mindset only sells the film short. Terra offers a fresh take on the science-fiction genre and a frightening future for humans.

Terra tells the story of an alien civilization resembling flying tadpoles known as Terrans. The protagonist Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) is a precocious and mischievous teen who has a penchant for invention. The aliens live peacefully enough in what appear to be large mushroom-like fungus skyscrapers. One day a menacing spacecraft enters their atmosphere and begins attacking the planet. Some of the aliens are captured including Mala’s father, but one of the attacking crafts is shot down. Mala investigates the crashed vessel and discovers that the attacking beings are human. Mala, desperately seeking to find out what happened to her father, befriends the human Lt. James Stanton (Luke Wilson). James and his human comrades want to colonize the planet and Mala only wants to rescue her father, and they realize that they can help each other in their endeavors.

Terra represents a new breed of sci-fi film. The grandeur of the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas celebrate the final frontier of space. The expanse of the universe is a desirable environment of varying planets, large nimble spacecraft, and advanced technology. Their reasons for being in the universe are simple: because they can! Now, recent sci-fi (eg. Independence Day) takes a little more of a dystopic approach offering the prospect of aliens attacking Earth. Certainly, there are the Philip K. Dick adaptations Minority Report and Blade Runner which problematize artificial intelligence and emerging technology. However, Terra does something different. Terra asks why humans are in space to begin with. The answer is survival. Humans are in space because of Earth has been destroyed by things all too familiar: urbanization and the IT global killer of choice, global warming. Space is no longer fanciful and fun. It is a place of refuge. We are only there because humans have exhausted the natural resources of Earth.

By no means is Terra a great film and maybe not even a good film. The animation is very good, but the characters and story need better development and depth. The strength of Terra is in its projections for the future of the human race. Joss Whedon’s Serenity explores similar territory in placing outlaws in space, with retro-weapons (revolvers and grenades instead of lightsabers) and a crumbling spaceship built from spare parts. The filmic universe is not what it used to be. Earth feels cozier doesn’t it? There is no place like home – even if you have to conquer for it.

© 2008 Charley McLean. All rights reserved.

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