Battlefield Earth (2000)

Terl (John Travolta) tries to strangle Johnny "Goodboy" Tyler (Barry Pepper). Sadly, the director, screenwriter and crew were unharmed. "Battlefield Earth."

Directed by Roger Christian. Screenplay by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard. Produced by Jonathan D. Krane, Elie Samaha, John Travolta. Music by Elia Cmiral. Photographed by Giles Nuttgens. Edited by Robin Russell. Production designed by Patrick Tatopoulis. Starring John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Sabine Karsenti, Michael Byrne, Christian Tessier, Sylvain Landry, Richard Tyson.

“Never underestimate what a little leverage can do, rat brain.”

Where do we begin?

Simply put, Battlefield Earth is to sci-fi epics what the Hindenberg was to Zeppelin flights. It is appalling in its waste of resources, pathetic in its timidity of imagination, unpleasant to look at, and comprehensive in its utter badness. No one ever sets out to make a dreadful film, but Battlefield Earth feels surprisingly thorough in its rottenness, as if it was designed by some mysterious intelligence that hates science-fiction, hates epics, hates movies, hates life. To “enjoy” it, one must not only suspend disbelief, but also intelligence, as well as faith in art’s capacity to do anything of worth. The special effects are woefully inadequate, the dialogue witless, and the film tries to compensate for its flaws by slamming the viewer with jump cuts, inappropriate rattle-and-boom sound effects, and a rummy-dum-dum musical score that is the orchestral equivalent of pushing a synthesizer’s demo button.  The cinematography is not only strange, but hasty, as if the film is aware it keeps making the wrong decisions, and wants to cut away from them as quickly as possible. The lighting is putrid when it’s not drab, and it has more needless Dutch angles than an Amsterdam extra-credit geometry class. It has portentous lines like “Hope is an admirable quality, but causes aren’t.” What? Oh and there’s a quick cameo where Kelly Preston licks her husband, John Travolta, with a six-inch tongue. Yeah. I could go on (and will, for a little while) but the bottom line is this: Battlefield Earth is not a film that was made, it is an atrocity that was committed.

The movie is based on L. Ron Hubbard’s 1980 doorstop of a novel, which is a two-fisted ode to 50’s pulp fiction, pitched at a very very modest intelligence level. The movie is worse than in its inspiration, however, since Hubbard was a hack who strived to be great, while the filmmakers are incompetents who strive to be hacks. His story, which is about evil aliens who rule the Earth in the year 3000, and the dim-witted remaining humans who engineer an uprising, can possibly be decoded as an appeal to Hubbard’s religion of Scientology. It has a liberal sprinkling of cheesy space opera (reportedly heavily embraced in Scientology mythology) and hints at the organization’s detestation of mental therapy (the evil aliens are called “Psychlos,” after all…psychlo…psycho…psychi…psychiatry? Get it?!). However, tying it to Travolta’s…erm, controversial religion, is a bit of a dodge, because the film is bad on its own merits, and not because of obscure connections that would mark it a Scientology recruitment video. Playing devil’s advocate, however, it may be partially successful on that level, if only because prolonged exposure to Battlefield Earth will certainly cause a viewer to doubt the existence of their own God.

We’re dropped in right away, as we’re shown an unconvincing CGI model of planet Earth, which blends with live action thanks to a cheap Photoshop effect. The movie’s title goes Battlefield Earth, A Saga of the Year 3000, and then immediately another title comes up saying “Man is an endangered species.” Um…is that part of the title, too? Not sure. Confusing. This is minute one, folks. Yes, man is indeed an endangered species, living in tribes in mountain hideaways, wearing rags, and speaking in semi-refined English, as if the extras from Quest for Fire had unearthed an old VHS tape of Masterpiece Theater. Almost everything to be said about the acting and the story can be described in the opening scene, where the hero, Johnny “Goodboy” Tyler (Barry Pepper), returns home with some medicine and is told “The Gods took your father in the night.” Johnny clenches his teeth and squints, like he stubbed his toe, and then explodes in rage, throwing his medicine into the air and screaming, while the camera goes into slow-mo and the music swells with counterfeit angst. The father is never mentioned again. So much for him.

Johnny does a little dance for the tribe and then strikes out on his own, venturing into the post-apocalyptic ruins of Denver, which is not a very convincing set. Post-apocalyptic movies like The Road, 28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys have done it better. Hell, the original Twilight Zone did it better. Anyway, this is the point where Johnny is picked up by the Psychlos. Who are the Psychlos? I’m glad you asked, although you may not be. They’re humanoid aliens who clomp around in six-inch-heel boots, rubbery outfits, nasty nose-mounted breathing tubes, white pancake makeup, and dreadlocks that cause them to look like lesser cosplay entries at a Doctor Who convention. The Psychlos are big and loud and kind of stupid, none more so than the leader of security in Denver, Terl (John Travolta).

Travolta. Oh, how to best describe Travolta’s performance? Campy? Silly? Unconvincing? Embarrassing? Oh, that’s a strong contender. Jaw-dropping? Yes, there’s that. Tra-volting? Now I’m just being cute. Travolta, as an actor, is clearly in love with every choice he’s making, and every choice is dead wrong. He creates a mincing, fey despot that is intentionally hammy, combining with demonstrative hand gestures and rhythmic, flamboyant cadences. And then you get the cherry on top, a hint of an English accent, overall creating a portrayal that’s…semi-Shakespearean? Oh, dear. Yes, it’s a terrifically toxic ice cream sundae of performance art. When he screeches at underlings and throws insults at Johnny, the “stupid man-animal,” he’s not acting, he’s “acting,” as if the only way to play a villain is to exist at a right angle from this material. That’s odd, because, as both a Scientologist and enabler of this vanity project, it would be his job to take this totally seriously (if anyone could). Travolta just cannot do villains (see a somewhat similar turn in John Woo’s terrible action pic Broken Arrow). He undermines every action with obnoxious ticks, self-effacing little quirks to show he’s only kidding. Here, he’s saddled with alien dentures, glazed contact lenses, disgusting fingernails and a makeup team that seems to despise him. He looks ridiculous, sounds ridiculous, why does he not feel ridiculous? He does laugh a lot: a stereotypical, “villain”-style crow that would make even Snidely Whiplash ashamed. Really, on the scale of sci-fi threats, Terl ranks somewhere below Quark the Ferengi. Oh, and he also has a sidekick, Ker (Forest Whitaker), whom I will not reference outside of this very sentence, because Whitaker is a wonderful, Oscar-winning actor (see The Last King of Scotland) who has miraculously managed to survive this wreck, and I wish to assist him in keeping his presence in this mistake locked under key.

The Psychlos are, apparently, the most awesome and crafty aliens in the universe. (Citation needed.) They’re a race motivated by one thing: money—gold, specifically. There are long stretches in Battlefield Earth where Terl negotiates with banking clans and plots to locate more gold deposits…You know, gold that the Psychlos weren’t able to locate or mine with their “advanced technology” over the course of one thousand years. (Does the screenplay realize how long a thousand years is? I’m legitimately asking.) These bits try a little bizarre social satire on for size, positioning the Psychlos as a send-up of bureaucratic capitalism run amok. But these jokes are not funny, not one of them. Anyway, since Psychlos can’t breathe in the Terran atmosphere, they enslave Johnny and his fellow cavemen to mine the gold for them, after zapping Johnny with lots of knowledge thanks to a supercomputer. Oh, yeah, this will go well. Johnny, now that he has ideas in his head, starts to formulate a secret resistance against the alien overlords, using fighter planes and explosives, training his friends via an operating (?) flight simulator. Johnny’s plan is dependent on Terl being an idiot: instead of mining gold, he and his unsupervised (!) compatriots break into Fort Knox and supply Terl with smelted bars of gold (?!) instead of unrefined ore. Terl, along with the rest of the Psychlos, had no idea that the gold was there (?!?!), and thinks the humans, with no access to a refinery, a furnace, or even a hot stove, have made the gold ore into bricks overnight (?!?!?!). He’s not even a tad impressed by this, and still regards the humans as imbeciles ([?!]²) Think about how much sense this makes. Now imagine an entire film existing at this level, and you’ve got the hang of it.

That’s pretty much the plot; from that simple description, you can instantly understand everything that happens before it does, thanks to decades of watching extravagant adventure epics that also ape the Joseph Campbell model, all of which (even the ones I haven’t seen) I can state without question are better than this. It’s not that Battlefield Earth’s concepts are stale, it’s mainly the fact that they’re delivered with such bloodless, rote recitation. There’s a reason why stories with this general thrust (peon forms rebellion against tyrant) can move us, but not when they lack conviction. You know how, with wax paper and a crayon, you can make rubbings that loosely resemble real objects, but lack the realness and heft? Battlefield Earth is like a story that is 100% rubbings, as the film imports elements from Star Wars, Buck Rodgers, Top Gun, Planet of the Apes…oh, just name something vaguely action-pop-culturey, and it’s in here, all part of the same glorious nonsense stew. The way the film plays, the motivation for the audience to care is, apparently, none of our business.

A lot of these problems, of course, lie within Hubbard’s 1,000+ page book, only the first half of which is covered in the film. (Yep, the sequel potential was built-in from the start.) Hubbard reportedly wrote it as a deliberately old-fashioned ode to 1950’s dime-store science fiction. By making it deliberately flawed, you see, he could hide his deficiencies as a writer (this is often referred to as the “George Lucas Strategy”). Its story is so dumb, however, that even Robert A. Heinlein would have introduced it to the nearest wastebasket. The movie makes a few changes to Hubbard’s text, eliminating some of the didactic backstory about the evil psycholog—er, Psychlos, and toning down the racism (example: in the book, his effeminate, stereotypically Asian aliens are called “Chinkos,” because…because…because Hubbard was such a good person, that’s why). But then director Roger Christian got ahold of the material—Christian’s former claim to fame was a unit director on…wait for it…Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Between him and Travolta (who produced, and was apparently in the driver’s seat of this Pinto) they made a fearsome disaster. The story may be deeply stupid, but that doesn’t explain the really awful acting, or the wretched look of the film, which slathers on primary greens and blues with harsh, amateurish key lighting. Nor does it explain why Christian tilts almost every single shot, as if he thinks he’s remaking The Third Man. If it’s to help make the Psychlos look taller and more intimidating, why does that approach not even come close to working? The film’s overall cheapness can be explained, I think, since Franchise Pictures, the production company, was later indicted for fraud, having reported overinflated budgets on this and other films. Somewhere, Max Bialystock is smiling.

Films like Battlefield Earth are special things—they are cinematic near-death experiences that prompt one to re-examine their own critical impulses. It’s third act, a half-hearted attempt to recapture the hellzapoppin climax of Independence Day, only makes one think about the reasons why Independence Day (not a great film) is still better than this. It promotes a newfound respect in artists that perhaps fail, but mean well, and to reflect that there is a difference between them and those who attempt to manufacture filmic Ponzi schemes. And it engenders more thoughts. Thoughts like: when compiling lists of thoroughly terrible movies, why are so often many of them sci-fi films? And how did a bunch of guys previously living as cavemen manage to operate military planes in time for the big action climax?  And are we supposed to understand the reason why the planet Psychlo blows up at the end, and were any innocents killed? And if not, are we meant to assume every Psychlo in the universe is a bad guy, and if so, is that racist? And how many Star Wars rip-offs can fit into one movie, anyway? And what’s the most legally safe way that I can speculate on how exactly the book managed to reach the New York Times bestseller list? Enough. At some point, you should stop and move on. And please…avoid the really dangerous thoughts, like “Why isn’t there a colon in the title?” Absolutely no good will come from imagining a version of this movie that is even one jot longer.

GRADE: F – – (Two minuses. You heard me.)

NOTES: You can read co-screenwriter J.D. Shapiro’s apology for Battlefield Earth right here. To date, Travolta himself has failed to apologize. Also, if you’re intrigued by frightening levels of self-congratulatory delusion, you may wish to brave Roger Christian’s audio commentary on Warner Bros.’ DVD release, a back-patting post-disaster affair that claims the film is a misunderstood classic that will be vindicated by time, an epic that is so ambitious, it is even “Schindler’s List-like in places.”

And that is a direct quote.

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