September 14, 2007
Film: TERRA
Country: Canada
Director: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Running Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, Brian Cox, David Cross, Amanda Peet, Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette, and James Garner

Today I saw Terra at the Toronto International Film Festival. My screening was packed, and I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with the director. Tsirbas is a Montreal native, and remarked that premiering his first feature film at TIFF was a "moving and rewarding experience." There has been serious buzz about Terra, and after attending the film I learnt why.

Terra is the story of Mala, a young Terrian (a peaceful, art-loving, techno-wary race who resemble cute tadpoles) whose passion for designing and constructing gadgets makes her something of a misfit at school and home. One day, Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) and her friend Sen notice a mysterious alien ship. When it deploys several smaller ships, one of them crashes and Mala finds Lieutenant Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) of the Earth Forces after he emerges from the wreckage. With the help of his robot Giddy (David Cross), she builds him an oxygen-friendly environment and learns his language. After the Earth Forces take Terra's father as a "test subject," Mala agrees to help Jim repair his ship if he takes her to the human mothership, known as the Ark, so that she can rescue him. Naturally, it all goes terribly wrong, and soon Mala and Jim are embroiled in a struggle for the planet Terra: Earth Forces military want to terraform Terra and render it uninhabitable for the native Terrians, and the Terrians must confront their warlike past in order to defend themselves.

Terra is not for everyone. It is not for neo-conservatives, although they would probably benefit most from seeing it. It is not for viewers who cannot stand violence in their animation. (Terra is very violent, but not graphic -- you'll see very little blood, but experience quite a lot of tension.) It is not for viewers who do not enjoy CGI, although the animation here is anything but the cheery plasticity of Cars. However, it is meant for people who enjoy great music, fast-paced action (including some fantastic aerial dogfights), and the sort of plot that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks will never, ever create on their own. Although Tsirbas shied away from applying any sort of definitive moral to his story, Terra is already being discussed as an allegory for the Iraq War. Terra presents the sort of difficult moral world that Miyazaki fans will remember from Princess Mononoke. (But Mononoke does it better, thanks in part to a more eloquent script.)

Terra has a few other flaws. The character designs are somewhat at odds with the environmental and mechanical ones. The humans in particular look as though they have all been stamped from the same mould, which is partially a product of military costume: flight suits and shaved heads. One notable exception is the villainous General Hemmer, whose face one audience member called "copied from George W. Bush." In addition, there are the usual scientific errors that populate most film-based science-fiction: Terra is supposed to be a helium atmosphere, and at certain moments Jim's respirator helps him metabolize it into oxygen. And the script is not particularly witty -- instead it evokes feeling mostly through high-pressure situations and the grace of good actors.

That said, Terra is probably leaps and bounds more unique than most animated feature films due out this year, and it has a good shot at distribution. The kids at my screening had a great time, and the popcorn-munching died down quickly. During the final sequences, I could hear every tiny rustle in the seats -- the film held everyone's attention in a tight grip. I hope you all get a chance to see it, and decide for yourselves what the story's message is.

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