A few months ago, I saw two new sci-fi movies at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and now both are in limited release: Duncan Jones's Moon (21 screens) and Aristomenis Tsirbas' Battle for Terra (2 screens). And it got me thinking. These two movies couldn't be more different, and the main distinction between them is this. Moon is sci-fi based on an actual sci-fi idea. That means that science actually figures into the fiction somewhere. And Battle for Terra is the perfect example of a war film decorated with sci-fi trimmings; its big "twist" is that the humans are the bad guys and the aliens are the good guys, but aside from that the story unfolds exactly like a regular war film. The aliens, spaceships and other gizmos don't really figure into the major themes or plot.
It got me thinking about how many science fiction movies are really just war movies in disguise. (The current Terminator Salvation is another one.) It's very easy to transform the combatants of a war to alien races and make the cause of the war something fictitious, like the "spice" in Dune (1984). It's much easier to explain why people are fighting over that powerful stuff than why they're fighting over differences in religions or beliefs. And it's much nicer to justify battling alien invaders than it is to justify humans fighting humans. Frankly, I'm all for this little bit of deception, provided the sci-fi movies have three things. Battle for Terra has none of them.