Remember “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey“? I remember one of his spoof mottos when I read the story below by Alicia Lozano: “I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.” Lozano chatted with the director of “Battle for Terra,” the new sci-fi animated feature that flips the traditional sci-plot by making the Earthlings the unwelcome arrivals from space. The movie, she says, is amazing …
For first-time director Aristomenis Tsirbas, his cosmic parable “Battle for Terra” has been in the making since he was a kid. The concept for this 3-D sci-fi animated adventure, which hits theaters Friday, first struck Tsirbas in his youth after reading H.G. Wells’ seminal book, “War of the Worlds.” He was bemused by the author’s portrayal of the aliens, whose intentions for invading Earth were not explored in depth.
“’Battle for Terra” was me not buying that an entire race can be evil,” he said. “It seemed obvious to twist that concept 180 degrees.”
The premise has enough clarity for young audiences but also has messages for adult moviegoers. Humans have destroyed Earth with war and pollution. The remnants of our species have been flying around space looking for a new home to permanently settle when they come across the idyllic, peaceful Terra, which is inhabited by nature-loving aliens.
The aliens, however, have a secret of their own that the elders (voiced by “Star Wars” and “Batman: The Animated Series” vet Mark Hamill and big Red himself, Ron Perlman, from the “Hellboy” films and animated movies) will do anything to keep. The humans make an initial attack on the dreamy planet, but amid the chaos, a Terrian called Mala (Evan Rachel Woods) saves a human soldier named Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson), and their unlikely friendship blurs the lines as species of two worlds fight for their survival.
“I wanted to make sure not to paint either culture too simply,” Tsirbas said. “The humans were not uniformly evil — there was a lot of debate whether they should invade. The aliens also have secrets and darkness to their history. Things are presented in a very simple way in the beginning, but soon after, things deepen.”
The A-list cast also includes James Garner, Rosanna Arquette, Chad Allen and Dennis Quaid as the aliens; Brian Cox, Chris Evans, Danny Glover and Amanda Peet as the marauding humans; and actor-comedian David Cross as the lovable robot, Giddy.
But animated sci-fi was a tough sell in the beginning, Tsirbas said, because at the time there wasn’t much of it and what was out there wasn’t very successful. But now, on the heels of “WALL-E” and “Monsters vs. Aliens,” the time may be ripe for this kind of movie, he said.
That’s not to suggest he’s a recently arrived tourist in the sector. In 2003, Tsirbas released the short film “Terra” about a reverse-alien invasion, which won awards at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and the Black Maria Film and Video Festival. The short set in motion the creation of “Battle for Terra,” taking nearly seven years to complete.
“I wrote the original treatment just out of film school,” he said. “There was no way to make it as a kid just out of school” with little money and few contacts.
“Battle for Terra” was originally conceived as a live-action sci-fi epic, but Tsirbas and his team quickly realized they could not afford a big budget and instead decided to create unique character designs that accentuated the aliens’ otherness and, most important, kept the cost down. The Terrians are hairless, buoyant and wear tight-fitting clothes. They engage in impressive aerial battles that were significantly cheaper to create than hand-to-hand or ground combat. In the end, these shortcuts seamlessly gel: Undulating aliens fly through euphoric sky-scapes all in 3-D.
Other cost-cutting measures included stationing the creative team in a local L.A. studio, where Tsirbas (in photo, right) worked right alongside animators and artists. It was a unique experience for the fledgling filmmaker, who used his visual effects know-how (his first professional project was in the animation department of 1997’s “Titanic”) to lead the crew.
For his next project, Tsirbas hopes to shed this shroud, however, and focus on directing.
“The plan is to get me off the box so I can concentrate on tone, character arc and not cloud objectivity with the minutiae of digital artistry,” he said.
In creating this movie, Tsirbas struggled to find the right balance between technology and artistry; he didn’t want to have “things come out and poke you in the eye.” He wanted to create a sense of immersion, where an alien world is tangible because something about it feels familiar.
“We’re looking at the alien world by making it feel a little more real,” he said. “This was about drawing you in rather than distracting you with cheap gags.”
After all, the point of 3-D is to “emulate the human experience,” he said. As technology continues to mature, this is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and Tsbirbas predicts that eventually 3-D will not require cumbersome glasses.
“Technology has finally caught up with the idea of 3-D,” he said. “If you think about the original 3-D, we had these horrible red and green glasses, and it was very difficult to watch. Now it’s a lot more comfortable to watch a 3-D film to the point where you don’t notice the technology.”
— Alicia Lozano
HERO COMPLEX COVERS THE FILMS OF SUMMER 2009
All “Battle for Terra” images courtesy of Lionsgate.