Early in the SCI FI series Battlestar Galactica, ship commander General Adama asks a surprising question of the few humans who have survived the Cylon attack on their home planet of Caprica: “Why are we as a people worth saving?” After all, humans still murder for any number of ignoble reasons, they leave their sins as inheritance for future generations, and in this specific case, they’re responsible for building the robots that have nearly wiped out the race. These are the sort of brainy political and philosophical issues that fans came to expect from Battlestar, but it’s a shock to see this same fundamental question get raised in Battle For Terra, a 3D animated adventure that’s pitched to the very young. On one level, it’s a down-market Star Wars-inspired shoot-‘em-up for kiddies; on another, it’s a radical alien invasion story where the humans are the aliens.
Through much of the first half, the film struggles to find its voice as it visits the inhabitants of “Terra,” a peaceful planet situated in the sweet spot of another solar system where human life could sustain itself. Part of an intelligent alien species that look like friendly, flying slugs, Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) goes looking for her father, who was abducted by a human mother ship. She also protects a good-natured pilot (Luke Wilson) who crash-landed on Terra in the hope that he’ll lead her to him. Things get interesting when the action shifts to the Earthlings, who have gone looking for a new home after making the Earth, Venus, and Mars uninhabitable. The ship’s hawkish military commander (Brian Cox, perfectly cast) argues that mankind needs to wipe out the Terrareans completely, because the planet cannot be shared.
Though the commander is deliciously evil, his raises a tough kill-or-be-killed dilemma: The humans can’t survive without pumping oxygen into the atmosphere and oxygen is poisonous to the Terrareans. Battle For Terra cheats a little on the endgame, but the stakes are raised exceptionally high for the final firefight and audiences may find themselves surprised to be rooting against their own kind. For a movie with on-the-cheap CGI and a wisecracking R2-D2/C-3PO clone, it’s still awfully heady.