One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The summer movie season is upon us again, meaning it’s time for our annual tribute to the unloved, underrated, or generally neglected summer blockbusters.
When Avatar hit theaters in 2009, many grumbled that the film, while a dazzling achievement of technological capability, was also a lavishly produced rip-off. Millennial viewers cited childhood favorite FernGully: The Last Rainforest as the mold from which the box-office smash was cast. Others named Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves. Still others noted that the premise “audience surrogate infiltrates enemy culture and is transformed by their way of life” dates back to the earliest fiction itself—a primal sort of creation myth for empathy. Practically no one, however, posited the computer-animated adventure film Battle For Terra, which had been in theaters just a few months prior. Mostly, this is because no one saw it.
Well, not no one. A little more than $6 million worth of people turned out during the 1,159-screen theatrical run, afflicting it with the stink of a megaflop and damning it to an eternity of being written off as the weirdly rendered supermarket-brand Avatar, or just forgotten entirely. But while the similarities between the two are nothing short of suspicious—the Avatar scene in which the space marines kill the aliens’ giant magical tree might as well be a shot-for-shot remake of a pivotal set piece in Terra—this forgotten anti-blockbuster has plenty of homespun appeal all its own.
Ostensibly working from a studio located in the deepest crevasses of the uncanny valley, director-animator Aristomenis Tsirbas originally conceived of his picture as even more like Avatar, a blend of live-action with photorealistic environments and characters. Ultimately, the film’s better off for not having the technology or capital to see his plans through; the style of animation is uncommonly, sublimely off-putting. It doesn’t quite reach “Tom Hanks in The Polar Express” territory in terms of pure uncanniness, but there’s a far-off deadness in the oversized CGI alien eyes that are supposed to read as cute.
The denizens of Terra—a fertile planet aggressively colonized by refugee Earthlings in search of a mud ball capable of sustaining life—look like the lovechild of a slug and lump of natural clay. Their main form of locomotion appears to be hovering just above the ground, and they communicate in an odd blend of highfalutin legend-speak and informal conversation. Strangest of all, they’re resistant to new technology but admiring of the abstract quality of innovation; a young girl receives punishment after inventing a crude simulacrum of a telescope, and praise for perfecting the wooden hang-gliders they use for recreational flying.
Terra’s legacy, if it’s to have any at all, will be that of a masterpiece of unintended surrealism. David Cross gives a bizarre supporting performance as the voice of a chipper robot helper, ranking just above Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel on Cross’ “doing it for the check” scale. The creeping sense of something being slightly off even pervades the smallest details of the film, present in a tight close-up of a Terran blinking at a robotically even pace. The thinly sketched characters of Avatar were rightly knocked for barely acting human. The unsettling Terrans, on the other slug-tendril, are extra-human, stuck with fascinating discomfort between artificiality and the real.
Availability: Battle For Terra is available on Blu-ray or DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital streaming services.