(Roadside Attractions) Starring the voices of Evan Rachel Wood, James Garner, Dennis Quaid, Luke Wilson, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Brian Cox, David Cross, Chris Evans, Justin Long, Ron Perlman, Beverly D’Angelo, Rosanna Arquette. Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas.
One of the more conventional plotlines in Hollywood-style science fiction is that of the alien invasion. It’s the one where evil aliens with far superior technology and vast numbers attempt to conquer the Earth for her valuable resources, and plucky humans make a last-ditch stand to save the planet and its inhabitants. However, we rarely see this scenario from the point of view of the invaders. And what if the aliens were humans?
Terra is a peaceful, idyllic world with a civilization that values art and music over technology and conflict. The inhabitants live in harmony with the wild and abundant natural life of their world. Like most of the life on Terra, the civilized inhabitants have a natural power of flight which they often augment with gliders, dirigibles and mechanically-driven flyers. They are ruled over by a benevolent council of elders, chief among them Doron (Garner). Young Mala (Wood) has a restless curiosity and a wild sense of adventure that often causes her to get into trouble. She has no problem pushing the boundaries, as when she races her more timid friend Senn (Long) in powered flyers, but comes too close to a dangerous wind tunnel, forcing Senn to rescue her.
On that day, an ominous shadow darkens the Terran sky. The shadow turns out to be cast by a gigantic spacecraft, which sends scout drones to abduct Terrans for study, including Mala’s father Roven (Quaid). Mala herself barely evades capture, leading one of the drones on a thrilling chase before using her knowledge of the terrain to cause the drone to crash. She comes to the site and finds the pilot, Lt. James Stanton (Wilson), injured and in need of oxygen (the Terran atmosphere has almost none). She brings the injured pilot home, and is followed by his faithful robot Giddy (Cross) who instructs her on how to build a makeshift oxygen tent and save Stanton’s life.
Once awake, Stanton realizes that he has stumbled onto a culture that values peace and life, and is not so far removed from his own. However, the human race is in dire straits. Earth has been wiped out by ecological disaster and civil war. The last surviving humans have assembled a gigantic spaceship called the Ark and journeyed over several generations to the nearest habitable planet. Unfortunately, the Ark is falling to pieces and structural defects take the lives of its inhabitants on a nearly daily basis. They have no other options but to somehow make this world theirs.
While the human council, led by President Chen (Glover) dithers, unable to make a decision, General Hemmer (Cox), leader of the Earth Force military arm, takes matters into his own hands. He orders the terraforming machine launched into the Terran atmosphere. This machine would convert the atmosphere into something that humans could breathe. Unfortunately, that atmosphere would kill all the existing life on the planet. As both sides prepare for a battle for their very survival, one thing becomes clear; one of these species must die in order for the other to live.
Writer/director Tsirbas has mostly worked as a digital effects artist for films, television and videogames. This is his feature debut, and it’s a dandy. He based this on a seven-minute animated short called “Terra” (the events of which are repeated early on here). While the concept of invading aliens isn’t new, this is a totally unique take on the subject, and the writing is superb. While some of the characters are a bit cliché – the plucky hero, the evil General, the wise elder – the story is riveting. You find yourself unsure of which side to root for and despite the overeager General, there are no real villains here. I found that rather refreshing.
Considering that this is an independent feature from a first-time director, the voice cast is impressive. Wood makes for a fine heroine, and Garner deliberately gentles his distinctive voice as Doron to satisfying effect.
The animation isn’t up to the standards of Pixar or DreamWorks, but is spectacular in places (particularly during the climactic battle). What makes it all the more amazing is that they had about 20 animators as opposed to the more than 100 usually employed for major studio animated features. The depiction of the alien world and its inhabitants is very imaginative and at times you’ll forget that you’re watching an animated film. If I have a quibble, the humans look a bit plastic and too similar. It does jar you out of the film in a few places, but after awhile you do get past that.
There’s not a lot of humor here, which is rather refreshing but that isn’t to say that it’s as humorless as Final Fantasy: the Movie. This is definitely a movie with a heart, and plenty of charm. While the concepts are pretty complex, the story isn’t so hard to follow that wee children will have difficulty keeping up, and they’ll love the creatures and joie de vivre of the rebellious teenaged leads Mala and Senn.
This was the first film we saw at this year’s Florida Film Festival and it was a great way to kick off one of our favorite events of the year. It’s also one of the most unusual animated features you’ll see. I doubt if it will get an Oscar nod with Pixar’s Up and Miyazaki’s Ponyo but I think it deserves some consideration. Strangely, Sony’s Planet 51 has a similar humans-as-invaders theme but done for laughs; I haven’t seen it yet but if it’s half as good as this, it’ll beworth seeing.
WHY RENT THIS: Superbly written, with a story that contains a perspective not usually seen in its genre. An imaginative alien world full of life and color delights and amazes. A spectacular battle sequence at the film’s climax will leave you conflicted as to whom to root for.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the animation is sub-par, particularly the human characters who look plastic and unrealistic. There are too many cliché characters that might have been fleshed out better.
FAMILY VALUES: Despite the complexity of the story, even small kids will have no problem following it. An uplifting anti-war message is delivered by alien characters that will delight most kids. Definitely suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Earlier in his career, director Tsirbas was a digital artist on the special effects crews of several Star Trek series.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the Blu-Ray edition, an animated version of Tsirbas walks around the CGI sets of the movie, explaining his love for filmmaking. Not especially informative, but different.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: When Did You Last See Your Father?