Shoutout to showbizsouls for the fabulous tags to help frame this discussion.
It’s a tension I’m really interested in, whether Aeris set out to
save the Planet or the people on it, and one that I think helps to
express her dual nature as both a human and an Ancient. It’s the
Ancient’s responsibility to protect the planet, purportedly at all
costs, and given the existence of Holy and Meteor as weapons in their toolkit, they were prepared to go pretty far.
Though we usually see the Ancients in the context of an inscrutable healer race, Yuffie’s insight and Ifalna’s history lesson tell us that their lives and struggles weren’t nearly so idyllic. Aeris bears the weight of two-thousand year struggle, “a crisis beyond human power and endless time.” Even if her heritage hadn’t caused her so much strife growing up, it’s a small wonder she seems to turn in on herself the more she learns about what it means to be an Ancient.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Aeris ever chose the planet over its people, whatever the stakes she was playing with when it came to Holy. Sephiroth’s plan would have wounded the planet, but that isn’t what Aeris objects to when she tells him the future doesn’t belong solely to him. The planet may seem somewhat indifferent to the people’s plight, but Aeris never is.
I think her “people over principles” approach helps solidify not only her reconciliation of an apparently disparate identity but also her role in the story as a messianic figure. It’s not just a matter of death and transcendence that makes her seem that way. She doesn’t have to be a martyr; she took on so much even in life. She believed in and fought for the good of people well before anyone could understand the scope of that decision, and well after that burden became too much for everyone to bear without feeling utterly powerless.