Director: Why Battle for Terra may be tough, but kids will get it

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Aristomenis Tsirbas, who co-wrote and directed the upcoming animated sci-fi familiy movie Battle for Terra, told SCI FI Wire that the film deals with complicated issues, but that he believes children can handle them. The film tells the story of an alien race that faces an army of human explorers with an eye to taking over their planet after war has destroyed Earth.

"I actually talked to a lot of kids about the story, and they really liked it," Tsirbas said in an exclusive phone interview on Tuesday. "It seemed as though there was an appetite for science fiction that wasn't just action, that had interesting concepts that relate to kids. Especially kids of today, who are kind of really ecologically aware, much more so than I was when I was a child."

Some of the film's intellectually challenging and provocative themes include religion and politics. The aliens believe the first human invasion to be the appearance of gods. The human military leader declares an "us or them" policy, since Terra would need to be terraformed to support human life, rendering it deadly to the natives.

"There's something that connected with the story and with younger audiences as I spoke to them in researching this film," Tsirbas added. "It became obvious that this is actually a film for younger audiences as much as it is for older audiences. There's a relevance there. There's an appetite there, and there's absolutely no problem with younger people grasping the themes of this film. I think kids are a little frustrated that they're being talked down to quite a bit with the content that's provided."

Tsirbas allowed us to call him by his common nickname, Meni, "just as a charity to you, most people who aren't Greek." The following Q&A features edited excerpts of our exclusive phone interview. Battle for Terra opens Friday.

Is this the first Greek sci-fi animation movie?

Tsirbas: Yeah, really, with the screenwriter [Evan Spiliotopoulos] and myself. It's not. It was just pure coincidence.

How controversial might it have been to introduce the concept of gods and religion in a family movie?

Tsirbis: Well, it would be. In our case, it's really not a big theme in this film, really. We did bring in the concept of a sort of cultish mechanism introduced in the alien culture as a way to repress a violent past. It was very important to initially show kind of an infantile, simple alien culture, a very vulnerable alien culture. But once explored, you realize that the culture was once warlike, there's a darkness to the past, and this needed to somehow be repressed. So there was a bit of dogma and a bit of politics introduced to help disguise and enforce a secrecy to the past.

How do you imagine a planet we haven't seen before in a world of Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica?

Tsirbis: Yeah, that's a really good question, because since this was CGI, even though I initially thought of it as live action, I still wanted to make at least the alien world CGI. It was really very important for me to show kind of a fresh take at an alien world and aliens in general. That's not to have, as far as the aliens go, not to have just a person in a suit, for example. Also, to have a world that has kind of an architecture and a vertical kind of architecture that's dissimilar to what we've seen in the past. In the case of the aliens, they don't have feet. They breathe the air, they filter out the oxygen and keep the helium in the air, and they become buoyant. As far as the architecture goes, there's a lot of backstory that informed the architecture, but what we see for most of the film is these towering natural structures that pierce through the clouds. They're about a mile high or so, and these vines kind of spiral up. At the top there's kind of a mushroom cap, a natural structure that shades things from the sun. ...

Were you going for a mellower tone than the sort of bombastic animated movies of late?

Tsirbis: There's definitely a certain gentleness to the film. The film does end with a lot of generosity and also sacrifice on both sides of this conflict. There's kind of a gentleness and compassion I wanted to have permeate through the film. It was, I think, a combination of that and also that I wanted to gently bring the audience into this world, show it as kind of a fragile world. It darkened over time, and we realized that there was kind of an aggressiveness that built throughout the process of the story being told, but I wanted to bring everyone in gently into this world. You realize at the end of the film, it's about difficult choices, about difficult moral choices, and it's about sort of compassion and understanding. There was this tone, this gentler tone that mixed in with the more aggressive battle scenes at the same time.